The Legend's Legend
When the story of prolific death engineer Chris Kyle was to be directed by Steven Spielberg, rumours abounded that the beard wanted to add a greater psychological dimension to Jason Hall’s screenplay. Was that a tacit acknowledgement that the script as written was a little, er, simplistic? Well, in the hands of aged Republican Clint Eastwood, we have our answer. American Sniper hits its targets with pinpoint accuracy, those bullseyes being, in no particular order, celebrating Kyle’s patriotism, showcasing his legendary accuracy with a sniper rifle, venerating the military for which he served and instilling pride in all the above in the minds of the flag wearing, deer hunting, country music loving audience, from which men like Kyle are often recruited, and with which the director has a natural affinity.
Yet despite the jingoism and uncritical appraisal of the war in which Kyle served four tours (no political movie this), in telling the story, Hall’s script can’t help but draw attention to the ironies, many of them cruel, that form the context. Even with a sympathetic soul like Eastwood on board, war, if it’s to be recreated with any realism, must remain hell, and that extends to the doubt encroaching on those unlucky enough to be fighting America’s fruitless battle in the Middle East.
For Kyle the doubters were architects of their own woes, for it’s only when you lose faith in the blind authority of your beloved state and it’s ideological aims, allowing reality to intrude, that you become vulnerable. But American Sniper, bound as it is to biography, must confront Kyle’s own PTSD, and the truth that he too became affected by a long and brutal guerilla war, potentially endangering that other great American institution, the family; the only card that trumps military overreach without leaving a nasty taste in the mouths of Guns and Ammo subscribers.
By keeping the movie weighted between family and military, with the integrity of the eponymous marksman never in doubt, American Sniper plays a simple game of home and abroad, with the audience invited to conclude that serving men must make sacrifices to protect domestic freedoms. War takes its toll, we’re informed, and inevitably the nuclear family suffers. But buried beneath the biographic sermonizing is another story of a country that gives men like Kyle few opportunities bar joining the military and killing foreigners, with the likelihood they’ll be killed themselves in the name of a cause that’s a great deal more complicated than they’ve been bred to understand.
It’s ironic then that Kyle is ultimately killed not by the “fucking savages” on the battlefield but a traumatised veteran on home soil. America’s war in Iraq, here conflated with 9/11, just as it was by the Neocons, is ultimately fatal for Kyle. Does the caption attached to the fleeting epilogue, informing a somber crowd that their hero was killed “by a veteran he was trying to help” spell that out? Not likely, but the conclusion’s inescapable, despite the movie’s lack of guile in exploring the question in any depth.
Technically American Sniper, like many a Clint Eastwood movie before it, is a well made but straight laced affair, with little in the way of visual flair or probing characterization. Bradley Cooper’s solid, literally and figuratively, as the former marksman, but if there was any more to Kyle’s compulsion to fight than childhood conditioning and blind subservience to the red white and blue, we’re not privy to it here. We’re therefore left wondering what Steven Spielberg, a director capable of picking the scab of war, would have made of it. A more penetrating film perhaps, more interested in finding out what was behind the legend’s legend than merely reconstructing it.