“American Sniper” is three bad movies for the price of one. When the film is state-side, it is a laughably bad domestic drama hampered by stilted dialogue and poor acting. When it is overseas, it is a myopic, simplistic, and naïve pro-war film that is a slap in the face of intelligence and decency. Worst of all, for the film’s entire run, it is an attempt to turn a real life lying, psychopathic asshole into a superhero and a role model. I hated this film for every moment I was watching it, yet it didn’t inspire outright anger in me as much as I was expecting it to. While “Zero Dark Thirty” is a better film, it made me angrier because that film didn’t have the balls to make an argument for or against a serious issue, on top of being boring. “American Sniper” has its boring moments too (I did not expect Clint Eastwood to fail at making exciting action sequences, but save for one sequence in a sandstorm his direction is lackluster), but at least it argues for something, even if that something is stupid, simplistic, and morally repugnant.
It’s almost impossible to review this film without talking about the real American Sniper at the center of, and in every scene of, this film: Chris Kyle. I doubt I have seen a film with a more loathsome and unlikable hero, and that’s just the sanitized version on film. In real life, it’s hard to see Kyle as anything other than a despicable human being. His memoir, which required not one but two ghostwriters, reveals him to be a psychopath who enjoyed killing. It’s one thing for a soldier to be proud of his work, or see violence as a means to an end when fighting for a greater good, but Kyle seemed to relish killing in the same way a Ted Bundy likely did. Not only that, but he seemed fond of bragging, to the point that multiple stories from his book have had their factual accuracy called into question. Hell, he was even successfully sued for libel, and anyone with working knowledge of the American justice system knows how hard it is so successfully sue ANYONRE for libel in this country. In the end, Kyle died due to his own stupidity. He took a man with severe PTSD to a gun range, and unsurprisingly the man turned a gun on Kyle and shot him dead. Naturally, our jingoistic, ultranationalist, unthinkingly patriotic population has seemed fit, by and large, to elevate this asshole to hero status, simply because he was seemingly proficient at killing brown people in the Middle East. He is supposedly the deadliest sniper to have ever served in the U.S military, but since the Pentagon doesn’t release figures like that, it’s possible was lying about that too. Even if he wasn’t, what does it say about America that we celebrate a high number of legally sanctioned murders? Even if every single human being he killed was a dangerous terrorist who needed to be taken out, shouldn’t we instead weep at the existence of such horror rather than celebrate our reaction to it with more palatable horror?
So now we have a film about this man, and try as it might, it can’t quite wash away the entire stink of the real Chris Kyle. The fictional Kyle is played by Bradley Cooper, and I can’t quite tell if his performance is bad or if he’s playing a moronic, egotistical dullard really well. Certainly the width he holds his eyes open at is unintentionally comical, and the Texas accent he attempts is somewhere between the real Kyle’s and Yosemite Sam on tranquilizers. The film’s Kyle is a man who abandons his position in a rooftop in Iraq, where he’s supposed to provide cover for Marines going door-to-door to smoke out an insurgent, all so that he can personally knock down doors, kill some “savages” (the only word he uses for Iraqis in the film…in fact, of all of the Iraqis shown in the film, only a handful are portrayed as anything other than dangerous terrorists or potential terrorists), and be Mr.Big-Dick-Swinging Hero. In another scene, he scopes out a terrorist sniper (a fictional character named Mustafa, played by Sammy Sheik) and is told to stand down, lest he give away the military’s position and put them all in danger. Does Kyle stand down to protect his fellow soldiers and the mission? Nope. He takes the shot, kills the sniper out of revenge for taking one of his friends, and the result is to have the building their in surrounded. Yes, Kyle will not let the mission or the safety of his fellow soldiers get in the way of his simple-minded and selfish need for revenge. Hell, the American Military was set to blow him and the building up to kill all of those insurgents, and they are only saved from the enemy AND their own government by a sandstorm. This is a movie so stupid it doesn’t even realize that the country it claims to love tried to kill its hero.
Let’s back up a bit. After a brief opening sequence where Kyle is torn about whether to murder a little boy or not, we flash back to his childhood. We see Kyle’s father (Ben Reed) threaten to beat his son if he turns into a “wolf”. See, his father thinks there are only three people in the world: Wolves, who are the evil people; Sheep, who the evil people prey on and don’t realize they’re in danger; and Sheepdogs, who protect the sheep. The film certainly endorses this simplistic worldview, and I was reminded of how the film “Team America: World Police” made this same argument, but at least had the decency to make it semi-satirical. In that film, the world was Assholes (evil), Pussies (sheep), and Dicks (protectors who sometimes go off, ahem, half-cocked). “American Sniper” is a film that takes seriously what a puppet movie from the “South Park” guys made fun of over a decade ago.
Later, we see Kyle as a rodeo cowboy whose skanky girlfriend cheats on him. Kyle’s proud of his big, shiny belt buckle and has a “Don’t Mess with Texas” bumper sticker on his fridge. After enjoying, I don’t know, 20 bottles of beer with his brother, he sees news coverage of the embassy bombings in Africa that were the handiwork of Osama bin Laden. In an unrealistically dramatic scene worthy of a facepalm, we see Kyle stand up from the couch, quiet his brother, and watch the newscast in horror, as if the report deeply moved him. Yeah, I’m sure that’s how it went in real life: after kicking your cheating girlfriend out of the house and getting shitfaced with your brother, Kyle’s redneck ass was moved by a news report playing the background. If you believe that, I have some magic beans I’d like to sell you. They’re America Beans, and they grow freedom.
So Kyle runs to his nearest recruitment office to sign up to be in the armed forces. Despite telling the recruiter that he’s not a fan of the water, the recruiter convinces Kyle to try out for the Navy SEALS program by all but saying “What are you? Chicken?” What follows is a hilariously bad montage of Kyle in training. The training consists of being cold, being pelted with high pressure hoses, and being sexually harassed by men. The men in this film are sexually harassed more than Demi Moore was in “G.I. Jane”. “Come on, do I have to fuck you in the ass myself” and other lines are yelled at the recruits. This will set up a pattern of quasi-humorous, passive-aggressive homoeroticism that runs throughout the film. It is likely many will walk out of the film thinking Kyle was a closeted homosexual, considering how much bravado he puts on and what little chemistry he has with his wife.
Ah yes, his wife Taya, played horribly by Sienna Miller. Much of the first act of the film is given to showing Kyle’s and Taya’s relationship, and it is laughably bad. They meet at a bar where, after Taya correctly reads Kyle as an egotistical, patriotic goon, she still gets drunk with him, leading to her vomiting in the parking lot as our protagonist holds her hair back. A love story for the ages. Not since Mama and Sugar Bear from “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” have we seen such moving redneck romance. Later they play some carnival games on a boardwalk, where we’re treated to great gems of dialogue like “Do you like country music?” and “What do you think of kids?” Can’t you feel them fall in love, people. When they are finally on the cusp of consummating their relationship, Cooper plays Kyle as wide-eyed and scared, and for a man of such bravado who has yet to be scarred by war, the fear can only be explained if he finds girls icky, no? Once Kyle does enter the military, he visits his wife in between tours of duty simply to knock her up and be cold and distant with her. I was reminded of the Al Pacino character in “Cruising” who, after spending nights undercover in gay leather bars, goes over to his girlfriend’s apartment to fuck the shit out of her and prove he’s not gay. Kyle’s behavior is more than a bit reminiscent of this.
Much like the scene of Kyle watching the embassy bombings is handled with over-the-top idiocy, the scene where Kyle and his wife watching the towers hit on 9/11 is similarly moronic. Taya screams, Kyle comes rushing out into the living room, and she clutches her husband’s bare chest and weeps. You can’t get this TV movie-level acting just anywhere, folks.
Then we’re back in Iraq. Okay, so the film shows us embassy bombings caused by bin Laden, 9/11 which was perpetrated by bin Laden, and then we’re in Iraq, which the film neglects to mention bin Laden had nothing to do with. There’s no mention of Saddam Hussein or WMDs or anything like that. The lack of political contextualization does not mean the film is apolitical, it means it is trying to tie Iraq in with bin Laden. That is a conscience attempt to distort history while claiming you are not being political at all, which is disingenuous and morally reprehensible. Later, the film puts Kyle and his soldiers on a mission to find the head of Al Qaeda in Iraq, al-Zarqawi, without mentioning the inconvenient fact that Al Qaeda wasn’t even IN Iraq until America went in there, toppled their dictatorship, and then plunged the country into a chaotic civil war that proved a breeding ground for extremists. Nope, this film has no room for anything facts that might make America look like anything other than an awesome land of flags and freedom who need to kill some “savages” lest they try to attack San Francisco. I’m not kidding, at one point in the film Kyle defends going back to Iraq on repeated tours using the tired and woefully asinine argument of “We’re fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here.” At least when Captain America goes after Red Skull, Hydra is actually a credible threat aiming to blow up or conquer the United States. You can’t claim all Iraqis are subhuman savages AND that they’re capable of launching full scale attacks on American cities at the same time. Well, I guess you can, because this film and it’s version of Chris Kyle do. Taya puts up a weak defense to that argument, but the film and Kyle treat her, and any other character or situation that stands between Kyle and his desire to murder his way through the Iraq, as a nuisance.
We’re treated to scenes in Iraq of either Kyle being bored and shooting dozens of Iraqis who are always clearly threats (the film never gives us a call so close that it’s really much of question whether the trigger should be pulled or not), or Kyle glamming himself, his friends, and his vehicles up with the Punisher logo and going out to hunt a fictional villain known as the Butcher (Mido Hamada). As someone who loves the character of the Punisher, and who has that skull logo tattooed on him, I am personally insulted that Kyle seemed to think of himself as the Punisher, not to mention attempt to appropriate the copyrighted skull design for a business he was attempting to start before being killed. Here’s what Kyle doesn’t understand about the Punisher, aka Frank Castle: he does not enjoy killing. He does it because he feels he has to because the law is inadequate. On top of that, the Punisher was against the Iraq War, perhaps because he was sent to fight in another useless war in which Americans died for nothing, Vietnam. If you don’t believe me, then forgive me as I quote the Punisher’s dialogue from a comic book in the Punisher Max line, the line of Punisher comics a character is seen reading in this film:
Frank: “Once upon a time there was a bunch of evil fucks. Hardly anyone knew, because they were so good at keeping it quiet, but these particular evil fucks owned the world. And they made the world a cruel and terrible place. They ran the great industries that poisoned the air. Their businesses turned whole countries into slaves. The money they made could have fed and healed the population of the earth twice over, but all that they could think to do with it was hoard it. They got away with it by being expert salesmen. These were men who could sell anything to anyone. They made puppets out of presidents and started wars for profit. Eventually, they came to believe that there was nothing that they couldn’t do. And so one day… inevitably… they pushed the planet’s luck too far.”
Anyone want to guess what war for profit he’s referring to? In any event, what’s surprising about this film is that not even the battle scenes, a staple of any war film, are any good. Eastwood, who you’d think would know how to stage a good scene of violence, does little but set his camera up in a static shot a medium distance from the action, maybe jiggle the camera a bit, and choppily edit the scenes together so that we have boring sequences of little visual interest. I was at least hoping “American Sniper” would be a well-made film that happens to have a horrible message, like when D.W. Griffith practically invented the modern film with “The Birth of a Nation”, a technically marvelous film where the Ku Klux Klan are our heroes. As “The Birth of a Nation” is to the American Civil War, “American Sniper” is to the Iraq War in every way but quality.
I’ll give credit where credit is due and say that there are two scenes in the film that kind of work. One is the aforementioned sandstorm scene, which is admittedly visually interesting. The second is a scene that feels like it came from another, better film. Kyle is on his sniper rifle and shoots a man who is about to fire an RPG at a Marine convoy. The man collapses, dead, and the RPG falls with his body. A young boy then comes over, picks up the RPG and points it at the convoy as Kyle mutters to himself for the kid to “just out it down”. Now the film intends this scene to merely show Kyle’s guilt over having killed a child earlier in the film (it’s the first person we see him kill). When the kid puts the RPG down, unfired, Kyle is relieved. Leaving aside the likelihood that the real Kyle would have shot that child dead with no remorse, this scene almost works as an indictment of the Iraq War. If you kill a terrorist, another one from the next generation will just pop up into his place. If people from another country invaded us and killed our fathers, chances are our sons would grow up to want to kill the people of that country for that reason. Certainly “American Sniper” understands revenge. It’s the narrative reason it gives us for Kyle wanting to keep going back to Iraq, and the reason he takes out the fictional sniper Mustafa despite the fact that it puts him and all of his colleagues in danger. So why, then, does the film lack any empathy for the Iraqi people? Supposedly when Spielberg was supposed to make this film, before Eastwood came on board, the film was going to show the story from Kyle’s side and from Mustafa’s side, so we had a more even-handed view of the geopolitical situation. Think of the film “Enemy at the Gates”, which followed a German sniper and a Soviet sniper during World War II. Conservatives would likely decry this as a false equivalency, but how much difference is there really between Kyle, an unthinking killer who loved his country without question, and am Iraqi sniper, who also unquestioningly follows an ideology and performs his task to the best of his ability? Perhaps America is not equal to a terrorist insurgency, but Chris Kyle may be no better than an insurgent, except that he wears an American flag instead of an ISIS one as he practices his lust for killing based on his beliefs.
Kyle’s and the film’s ra-ra-go-America jingoism are never repudiated within the film. Even when a fellow soldier and friend of Kyle’s dies on the field of battle, and he attends the man’s funeral, his reaction to a relative of that soldier reading a letter the soldier had written calling the war into question is to tell his wife that it was the mindset behind that letter that caused his comrade to fall. The man had the powers of observation and the mind of his own to see the useless travesty that was the Iraq war, and Kyle’s response is to blame his friend and not the men who killed him? How disgusting of Kyle, and this is just the one in the film. Who knows how the real Kyle would react to such seditious thinking. When a solider earlier in the film questions Kyle carrying around a Bible (which we ironically see him STEAL FROM A CHURCH in his childhood) and the meaning behind the war, Kyle’s response is to ask the man if he’s feeling okay and if he wants to sit out the mission. That the film has Kyle paying lip service to religion and carrying a Bible against his heart yet apparently never reading the book is odd. It’s almost as if the film is attempting to whitewash and deify this asshole, but his idiocy and shitty-nature is partially propaganda-proof.
Four tours of Iraq and two children he never spends time with later, Kyle is home for good, and we get a third act of the film which feels like disingenuous pandering. It’s clear that the filmmakers were trying to lesson the criticisms the film was going to receive for its Neoconservative politics by ostensibly becoming a film about PTSD and the traumas soldiers face. Well, “The Deer Hunter” this is not. For one, Kyle never comes across as a man with PTSD so much as a man who is annoyed that he’s in the “real world” and not out killing more “savages”. I was reminded of the scene in “The Hurt Locker”, a film that is in ever way a better version of “American Sniper”, where the main character finds himself staring at all of the cereals in the supermarket, and is frozen by the plentifulness of it all as a contrast to what life in Iraq defusing IEDs was like. Kyle comes across more like a man who is bored and doesn’t know what to do with himself if he’s not being an action hero in the Middle East. Aside from one scene where he almost kills the family dog due to a war flashback, the film mostly just shows Kyle angry or zoned out. Of course, then he visits a VA hospital, meets people who were injured in Iraq, and Kyle is seemingly cured of his 24 hour PTSD bug. That the real Kyle was occasionally injured in Iraq but that the Kyle of the film is seemingly impervious and never hurt only showcases how the film is trying to make him an action hero. The film wants us to think, with the last minute PTSD storyline, that it’s giving us the psychologically damaged John Rambo from “First Blood”, when it’s really giving us Rambo the unbelievable cartoon of “Rambo: First Blood Part II”.
The film shows us wounded vets with prosthetic limbs or confined to wheelchairs, yet none of them seem to be upset that they gave a piece of themselves to a war that wasn’t worth fighting for. They mostly seem upset that they’ve lost their manhood. When Kyle takes one wheelchair-bound man to a rifle range, the man shoots some targets and then says “I feel like I got my balls back.” Yes, because the ability to fire a gun makes you man. That is the level of thinking this film is capable of. If you are an Iraq vet who doesn’t equate a firearm with their phallus and is upset that you were asked to pay a large price for a war waged on false reasons, my guess is you’ll be pissed at this film.
The film’s ultimate injustice and cop out comes in its final scene. Kyle, after engaging in a little cowboy rape fantasy in the kitchen with his wife, says goodbye to the kids he barely knows so that he can take a vet with PTSD to the rifle range. The film closes as Taya looks at the vet, who is depicted as scrawny and creepily as can be, and with shots of Taya very…slowly…closing…the…front…door as she stares at the guy with an obviously visually bad feeling. The scene alone deserves a Razzie for how horribly and on-the-nose it is handled. Then the film has the cowardice to not even show Kyle dying from his own stupidity. After this film has shown us Kyle making a scene and almost killing the family dog due to PTSD, it seems rather stupid of him to take another man with PTSD to a rifle range. This stupid decision lead to his death, and this film doesn’t have the balls to show us this on camera. Instead, we get a single title card of white text over black telling us he died at the hands of a veteran “he was trying to help”. Really? Go fuck yourself, movie. At that moment I was happy Chris Kyle was dead, which I suppose makes me no better than the audience members who clapped when Iraqis were shot dead in the film earlier. I don’t much care.
The film then ends with a silent closing credit sequence of real footage of people lining a highway with flags, so many goddamn American Flags, and still photos of a memorial service held for Kyle in a football stadium. This is the film going full “Triumph of the Will”, and when Seth Rogen compared “American Sniper” to the fictional Nazi propaganda sniper film “Nation’s Pride” from Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds”, he was not far off. The film wants to end with Kyle as our new Superman-Jesus-Christ. I wanted to vomit on the floor of the theater.
It goes without saying that the screenplay by Jason Hall is atrocious. It’s politics are despicable, the dialogue is tin-eared and awful, and the shoehorning in of an attempted PTSD third act redemption is the height of bad writing. Eastwood’s direction is at best boring and boilerplate. The editing is at times very choppy, with some scenes lasting maybe two lines and having no point and not building up to anything before moving on to the next thing. The acting ranges from atrocious (Sienna Miller) to serviceable. If this film wins any of the Oscars it is nominated for, it will be a blight on the Academy and a travesty of justice.
Despite my hatred of this film, it is not an F. The film is not effective propaganda because its flaws are so noticeable, and the fact that it’s not all that well-made actually makes it less effective and easier to criticize. Occasionally, like in the scene with the child picking up an RPG, and unintentional truth about the ugliness of the Iraq war, or the ugliness of Chris Kyle as a human being, actually break through the intentional Conservative jingoism of the film, which is surprisingly and says something about how horrible both the way and the man were if even a serious attempt at propaganda cannot contain those truths. The film comes across as boneheaded as when John Wayne made “The Green Berets”, one of the few PRO-Vietnam War films Hollywood ever made, in 1968. “American Sniper” will preach to the choir, and it will make money from both that choir and curiosity-seekers that are not of that choir. The film, however, will fail at converting the non-believers, and for that I can’t give it an F because it’s not even good enough to be dangerous. So it gets a D-.