American Sniper misses  the target – film review

Robert Henderson

Main cast

Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle

Sienna Miller as Taya Renae Kyle

Max Charles as Colton Kyle

Luke Grimes as Marc Lee

Kyle Gallner as Goat-Winston

Sam Jaeger as Captain Martens

Jake McDorman as Ryan “Biggles” Job

Sammy Sheik as Mustafa

Mido Hamada as The Butcher

Director Clint Eastwood

This is a frustrating film.  Eastwood as the director  guarantees that it is technically well made. It moves at a good pace, taken individually the action scenes in Iraq are dramatic  and  the subject  (the role of the sniper) is interesting in itself  and has novelty because  it is  not often extensively examined in film. And yet, and yet ….American Sniper has an emptiness, the sum of its parts being decidedly less than the parts.  The film ends up teetering on the edge of boring.

The large  majority  of the film is devoted to Kyle’s four tours of Iraq, with much of that screen time devoted to sniping and house-to-house searches.   Therein lies the first problem with the film as drama. The action  scenes become  repetitive because there is not that much difference from watching Kyle shoot one person from the top of a building and him doing the same thing to quite a few people.  Similarly, the house to house searching has a sameness about it when the streets look the same and the outcome is always  either dead bodies after an exchange of gunfire or the taking of prisoners.

There are attempts to vary the emotional content of  the sniping , for example the first people Kyle  shoots are a young boy and  his mother who are attempting to use a grenade against US soldiers. There are  also subplots involving an Iraqi sniper known as Mustapha  who is portrayed  as having a  duel with Kyle  (which Kyle wins)  and a search to find the  al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi which involves track of   al-Zarqawi’s second in command who known as the Butcher for his delightful habit of torturing people with an electric drill.

But all this generates a  most curious lack of tension because the events are rarely develop into  more than snapshots. Nor is there any sense that anything Kyle or his  comrades has any real purpose beyond the immediate end of preventing American troops from being harmed.  Ironically, what the film unintentionally does  is to provide  a depressing essay on  exactly how futile not only the Iraq war but any war fought by Western Armies in Third or Second world countries is fated to be.

The sniping action scenes are rather strange. Often Kyle is shown shooting from the same position on more than one occasion. This is a no no for a sniper unless he really cannot help it. Understandably snipers are both hated and feared by the other side for the constant threat they offer not only in reality but in their enemy’s mind.  Consequently, the enemy will  make great efforts to locate and kill snipers and the most likely way of doing that is if a sniper stays in the same position and shoots more than once. Modern sniper rifles come with equipment to dull and distort the direction of  sound  and suppress the flash of a round being fired but it is not a complete solution to the problem of giving away your position. To remain in the same position and fire other shots after the first round has been fired is just asking to be located and killed.  There is also an absurd episode towards the end of the film when Kyle shoots the sniper Mustapha at well over 1,000 yards range and in doing so alerts Iraqi insurgents to Kyle and his fellow soldiers’ whereabouts who immediately attack the building in which Kyle and his comrades are hiding.

Another baffling part of Kyle’s behaviour in the film was when he left his sniping position on his own initiative to join in the house to house searching and suffered no disciplinary action. I would have thought that going from his sniper’s position without orders and leaving the soldiers without sniper protection would have been a court martial offence.  (The idea of sniper protection in this situation is that a sniper is put on a high building overlooking the area  being searched by troops and shoots anyone who appears to be ready to attack the soldiers).

Because the film is trying to pack so many  action scenes in there is little opportunity for character development  even of Kyle who is rushed from one action scene to another  with breaks every now and then for a return to the States for leave with his wife. Apart from Cooper the only other character with an extensive part is Sienna Miller as Kyle’s wife Taya.  She is adequate in the part but it really does not demand much of her beyond  her agonising over how Kyle “isn’t here”  even when he is home.  The rest of the cast does what it has to do well enough  in the very  limited and unvaried scenes  in which they appear.

There is also a frustrating   lack of  context  for Kyle being in Iraq. Kyle’s motivation is ostensibly a simple unquestioning God-fearing  patriotism built upon the Bush Administration’s  line that the USA was in Iraq to protect Americans in America. That is reasonable enough  for Kyle’s character but there is nothing to balance that mentality, no character to challenge his imple faith.

Finally, then there is the problem of Cooper as Kyle.  Cooper  strikes me as one of those actors who can only play himself. That is not necessarily a problem as many film stars have shown, but the person must have a quality which makes them interesting such as  charm, menace, sexual  attraction.   For me Cooper lacks any exciting or engaging quality.  In American  Sniper he is seriously wrongly cast for this requires not only a convincing tough guy but a character with some emotional hinterland.  Cooper is unconvincing as a hard man  and displays  as much psychological subtlety as a brick wall. His limitations are  particularly exposed   in those parts  of the film where Lyle is home on leave. These   are designed to variously show Kyle’s detachment from ordinary life and addiction to living in a warzone, but these are very cursory and unconvincing.   Ryan Gosling in the role would have made the film much more interesting because he has both psychological depth and is a convincing hard man.

The ending of the film is deeply unsatisfactory from a dramatic point of view.  Originally the ending  was going to be centred around Kyle’s shooting to death by a disturbed ex-marine Eddie Ray Routh who has just been found guilty of murder and sentenced  to life in prison without parole. But Kyle’s wife asked them to drop the scene  and the director substituted a tepid ending showing Kyle leaving with Routh  to travel to the shooting range where the killing took place with a very  anxious Sienna Miller looking on as if she had a premonition of what was to happen, something which must  surely have been a post hoc addition to the real-life  story.  One can understand the wife’s reluctance to have the murder scene  removed but presumably she must have originally given it the thumbs up.

Judged by  the box office takings American sniper has been immensely  in the USA and criticism  of the film’s subject matter  has generated violent responses in the mainstream and social media . In particular, there has been ill-judged criticism from the likes of Michael Moore that snipers are cowards because they kill without putting themselves in dange. This is double-dyed nonsense. To begin with snipers are always having to guard against being spotted and shot themselves.  In a war such as that in Iraq the risk and fear of being seen and killed is  enhanced  because it is a war fought in towns and cities where there is no readily recognised enemy who may be anywhere and come in any human form from  a young child to trained soldier.

To that rebuttal of the charge of coward can be placed a  more general  exculpation of snipers.  War has never been anything but ugly and unchivalrous.  When the crossbow was introduced in mediaeval times it was condemned  as illegitimate by the nobility because the armoured knight was vulnerable to its bolts. The weapon  also had a range   much greater than that of a conventional bow which introduced death meted out from a serious distance. Later the same sorts  of complaint were levelled at firearms.  Long before modern breech loading artillery was devised muzzle loading guns could send their shot miles.  By the late 19th century the machine gun had arrived with the capacity to mow down dozens of men quickly.  By the middle of the twentieth century  bombers were delivering  huge payload from a great height onto  civilian populations. Sniping is no more or less cowardly, no more or less brutal than war is generally.

More pertinent perhaps  are the criticisms that the Kyle of the film is a sanitised version of  what Kyle was, that Kyle was far from being the simple God-fearing patriot of the film. Indeed there are strong reasons that he was both a braggart and a fantasist who made up stories such as claiming to have gone down to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and killed many of the  “bad guys” who were looting.  Yet in the film he is shown as being intensely  embarrassed when an veteran of Iraq who has post a leg stops him in a store and praises him effusively for what has  done in Iraq.

Overall the film has a nasty whiff of being a propaganda film, not intentionally but in effect.   If you go to see it bear that in mind and treat it a primer for an understanding  of the ordinary American’s mind these days.

 

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