Published Jan 16, 2015Now 84, Clint Eastwood seems hell-bent on making films at a rapid pace, releasing two alone in 2014. His first effort, last summer's musical Jersey Boys, was a baffling tonal failure, a miscalculation that paired Eastwood's stagey, desaturated house style with content that deserved bigger and punchier direction. If the pairing of Frankie Valli and Dirty Harry seemed awkward, remember that the Eastwood of the '80s and '90s gained respect for being a chameleon, directing films as formally diverse as the Charlie Parker biopic Bird and The Bridges of Madison County. Despite his multiple successes since — 2003's Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby in 2004, Gran Torino — when Eastwood stumbles on tone, it can go wrong. It can go so, so very wrong.
American Sniper, Eastwood's second film of 2014, is an even worse pairing of source material and director than Jersey Boys, and it's here that Eastwood's house style betrays his touch for drama once and for all. Thanks to Eastwood's hands-off formal style, American Sniper is a jaw-dropping work of unintentional tonal confusion that ends up advocating racist ideologies in a more cheerleading fashion than even the satirical The Interview could pull off. Eastwood misses every possible moment of nuance and characterization, turning this into a piece of idolatry rendered incredibly problematic when we consider that the film never questions the actions of a man who killed hundreds of people during the Iraq war. If moviegoers are in a period of revisionist critiques of the American military and masculinity (see The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty for how to do it right), then American Sniper sets us back 50 years.
American Sniper is the true story of Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history (something the film's aggressive ad campaign has splayed across all posters and trailers). A bulked-up Bradley Cooper plays Kyle, and the film follows a pretty standard biopic trajectory, beginning with Kyle's early days growing up in a conservative, deeply religious Texas family. Kyle enlists in the military late, at age 30, but soon becomes one of the most celebrated snipers in the military once the War on Terror breaks out. From there, the film goes from battle to battle without much dramatic tension, with breaks in the action to send Kyle back home in between tours. While at home, Kyle struggles with his guilt of not being around to save his fellow soldiers. When he's back to being deployed, he struggles with his inability to kill an unstoppable terrorist sniper (nearly every non-white, non-American character in the film is portrayed either as a cartoonish villain or someone who lacks any agency at all and must be saved by the American soldiers).
The whole thing is pretty simplistic, and if Eastwood could have found a reason to make us care about Kyle, he could have created a compelling drama. Instead, the film moves from battle scene to battle scene without any dramatic tension or weight — this is the sort of film that reduces Kyle's PTSD to just a couple of scenes and a fairly simple resolution at the end. Kyle ends up appearing superhuman to us, something that is heightened when all of his fellow soldiers keep calling him "Legend" as a nickname. Here, American Sniper reveals itself as idol worshipping and ideology at its purest, making the film even more problematic when we consider that the real Chris Kyle was killed by a veteran with PTSD on a shooting range in 2013. By ending the film with a title card that reads "Kyle was killed that day by a veteran he was trying to help", the film demonizes mental illnesses and portrays PTSD as something the military institution can cure, as long as you're a good patriot.
This is where it all goes wrong: Eastwood mimics the formal style of previous Iraq war films like Zero Dark Thirty without understanding how to use that language to say anything critical about the way his characters behave, instead making a film with a central message that seems to be, "Be a good Christian, be a good American, be a good soldier." All three institutions go unquestioned and treated with the same level of religious fervour for the whole film (Kyle carries a bible around with him for the whole film, but Eastwood doesn't have time to investigate his reasons or what religion means to Kyle — it's reduced to a symbol of goodness). There's no room for irony in a film that takes itself this seriously, and whose ridiculous, unintentional bits of humour made the audience at my viewing roar with laughter.
Bradley Cooper does good work as Kyle, but seems to be getting by on a redneck charm that feels totally inappropriate for the film. By portraying Kyle as a "good ol' boy," Eastwood's hands-off approach doesn't allow for any criticisms of Kyle's character, revealing the film's aggressively jingoistic bent. Originally, Steven Spielberg was set to direct the film, and you can imagine how Spielberg could have buried the more problematic elements of the film under his classicism and Hitchcockian formal command. Spielberg also has an expert command of depicting the sort of voyeuristic elements the film tries to go for, but never lands.
Eastwood never gives us a reason to care or be interested in the act of being a sniper, spying on people while killing them from a distance. If the film could have pulled that off, American Sniper might have been a compelling drama, but instead ends up being one of the worst Best Picture nominees in recent memory.