With an unprecedented January opening weekend haul of over 100 million dollars, Clint Eastwood’s thirty-fourth film as director, American Sniper, has not only solidified itself in the box office record books, but also as a lightning rod for political debate. Perhaps not since The Passion Of The Christ has a non-blockbuster become that film everyone just comes out to see, and audience members seem to place themselves staunchly into an either pro or con camp, which from what I gather ends up an echo of the same beliefs they had while driving to the theatre.
But is the film any good? Such a question doesn’t really matter to the politically-motivated, though I think the fact that there is such a heated debate speaks to what is probably American Sniper‘s greatest strength, the fact that it can be whatever you want it to be, a hallmark of a polarizing work of art that sticks close to the facts and events, rather than subjective opinions. Like Zero Dark Thirty two years ago, which inspired arguments about whether or not it supported torture, American Sniper doesn’t contain any direct evidence supporting a pro-war or anti-war stance, but impassioned audiences don’t need any help filling in the blanks, or in this case letting their pens bleed all over the page.
That being said, the fact that American Sniper refuses to dabble in commentary only draws attention to the fact that there isn’t much of a story here. Chris Kyle, the man the film is based on, was raised to think of himself as a protector, enlisted in the American military after the terrorist attack on 9/11, became an extremely proficient sniper, and then was shot dead by a fellow soldier at a shooting range some time after retiring from combat. These plot points practically beg for some melodramatic hand-wringing or dramaturgy, but the film leaves well-enough alone, lapsing into bad faith only when it comes to Kyle’s wife, who pleads with him in between tours to stop going back and just stay home. These protracted, filler scenes immediately bring to mind The Hurt Locker and how its director Kathryn Bigelow managed to say similar things with a single shot of Jeremy Renner standing in an endless supermarket aisle, instead of Sniper screenwriter Jason Hall’s pages of needless, perfunctory dialogue existing for no other reason than to fulfill audience expectations, their purpose so obvious that they couldn’t distract from the continuity error of Tara Kyle’s magically zipped and then unzipped jacket during one scene in particular.
Eastwood also makes some blatant perspective errors, cutting away from Chris Kyle occasionally to establish an antagonist, or another sniper setting up their weapon, in order to force a dramatic tension that betrays the film’s first-person narration. Eastwood tries to have his cake and eat it too, but when a specific perspective is established it cannot be broken from at will, and it becomes yet another indicator that there is so little actually going on underneath the surface of American Sniper that Eastwood has to cheat to make it more entertaining. But what Eastwood doesn’t do is cheat to make it more political.
There are some terrific aspects to the film. The combat scenes are very well conveyed, with Eastwood’s trademark workmanlike economy, especially the final battle which takes place in a giant sandstorm, which I can’t help but feel is the director’s subtle way of simultaneously anticipating the mixed audience reaction to the film, and commenting on the confusing time America was forced into in a post-9/11 world. Eastwood also closes the film with a montage of layman reactions to Kyle’s death, and the enduring support he received from all across the country, and scrolls an end credit sequence without any cloying musical score, inviting an appreciation for respect as distinct from endorsement, if you’re open-minded enough to draw such a conclusion.
American Sniper is a flawed but commendable film about a real person who did real things, and like them or not Eastwood is showing them to you, and their depiction deserves to be judged on their own merit rather than based on some political agenda. In other words it’s far more important to me that you acknowledge and resist the urge to conflate the two, than any success on my part at convincing you that the film is only worth three stars at best.
The Verdict: Rave