Pulling a trigger may be the single most dehumanizing act there is. Every time one person makes the conscious decision to end the life of another, they lose a part of themselves that cannot be retrieved. Most people would grow ill at the thought of performing this act even once. What kind of person would it take to have done it 160 times? How would he/she feel?
In Clint Eastwood's American Sniper, we're introduced to the real-life figure that epitomizes the moral quandary at the root of killing for one's country; NAVY Seal Chris Kyle, who became the deadliest shot in U.S. military history over the course of four tours in Iraq, earning him the nickname 'Legend'. But an introduction is not the same as an examination, and as riveting an introduction it is at times, it does not delve deep enough into the man behind the 'legend'.
As Taya waits nervously for his safe return, Kyle begins his famous campaign, picking off enemy insurgents (passingly referred to as “savages”) from his rooftop perches with scary precision. No one, not even women and children, could be safe from his lethal cross-hairs if they pose a threat to the ground troops. He has only one force to reckon with, in the form of an equally accurate enemy sniper who always just eludes his rifle sight.
At least, that's the only force he has to reckon with over there. Back at home, however, he struggles to adjust to the stable husband/father role that's been lying in wait for him. Taya knows that no good can come to her husband's embattled psyche if he returns to fight, but that doesn't stop him from doing so an additional three times before finally hanging up his fatigues for good.
The back-and-forth rhythm between tense combat sequences in Iraq and tensions at home proves effective for a while, especially thanks to a tight assembly by editors Joel Cox and Gary Roach. Even though they're unable to carry that momentum right through to the very end, most of the action set pieces are real armrest-grippers, most notably the climactic firefight that unfolds on the fringe of an encroaching sandstorm.
The film is enduring a storm itself, but one of controversy. Numerous liberal dissenters have been doing some sniping of their own at Eastwood's allegedly aggrandizing depiction of Kyle, who is considered in some corners to be more of a sociopath than a hero. Enormous credit has to go Bradley Cooper on this front, who delivers a lived-in, under-the-skin performance that colours in Kyle with shades of gray that scarcely get noticed in such black-and-white debates.
The real problem of the film is not that it glorifies a soldier's killing proficiency. The real problem is that Eastwood and the script from which he's working (adapted from Kyle's memoir by Jason Hall) fail to really investigate the after-effects of all this bloodshed, which is by far the more compelling side of the drama.
Kyle's struggles with post-traumatic stress are only glanced at in brief, wasting an opportunity to comment on the mental health consequences faced by America's veterans returning from war zones. [SPOILER: Given the circumstances of Kyle's ultimate tragic fate, this theme deserved more attention.]
Instead, the ramifications of such violent conflicts get largely glossed over in favour of focusing on Kyle's accomplishments. I suppose there's some wisdom in avoiding the political, but in the case of Mr. Eastwood – who once infamously told an empty chair how much he hates Obama – his seeming disinterest in exploring such issues may be considered political by omission.
It's folly to try and judge the film on Eastwood's presumed political allegiances. Best we can do is judge his faculties as a filmmaker, which (at 84 years of age) he proves that he still hasn't lost entirely. This is his first movie in years in which his drab aesthetic is actually an appropriate fit for the subject matter (there's certainly nothing visually glorious about the war), although he can't resist indulging in a few musical cues that betray his otherwise objective eye.
This isn't to say there's anything wrong with praising someone who has such a horrible job to do. By all accounts, Chris Kyle fought for his country and saved the lives of many of his fellow soldiers, and there's valour in that. But a man can be a valourous hero and at the same time be a fragile human on the brink of being undone by those very heroics. American Sniper shows us plenty of the former, but not nearly enough of the latter; A captivating portrait of the soldier. A woefully incomplete portrait of the man.
**1/2 out of ****