Tuesday 20 January 2015

American Sniper: Finely crafted but morally repugnant


American Sniper
Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Kyle Gallner
Running time: 132mins

In this adaptation of a true story, Cooper plays Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL sniper with 160 confirmed kills to his name during four tours of Iraq. His record-breaking marksmanship makes him a legend to his fellow soldiers, but such is his dedication to the US cause his marriage and family life suffer badly. Technically, American Sniper is decent enough. Cooper, an actor I’d never particularly rated, and Miller (playing his wife Taya), are both superb. Meanwhile, director Eastwood ensures you feel every bit of Ramadi and Fallujah’s heat and grime, and he’s still a master of the tense action sequence too. Unfortunately, despite its undeniable craft, the film is morally repugnant.

The second Iraq War was probably the West’s single most catastrophic foreign policy misadventure since Vietnam. Launched not upon one lie but two (Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks on New York, nor did he have any weapons of mass destruction), the conflict is thought to have cost half-a-million Iraqis their lives, with millions more left homeless or displaced entirely. Nearly 5,000 American military personal were killed, another 32,000 injured. The seeds of Islamic State didn’t all take root during the war but many of them did. And the Middle East – rarely an oasis of calm – is arguably more unstable now than it has been in living memory.

You get not a whiff of any of this during American Sniper’s two-hour-plus running time. There’s not a hint of proper contextualisation nor any desire to take on board such trivialities as “facts”. It’s a simple-minded game of goodies versus “bad guys”. Civilisation versus savagery. Dirty (but patriotic) Harry battling a country full of stone-cold Islamist killers.

One of the film’s plot strands sees Kyle and his men on the trail of a merciless Al Qaeda operative dubbed The Butcher – he’s a proper wrong ’un who kills and tortures with impunity. Of course, for all his faults, Saddam Hussein was no fan of Al Qaeda so The Butcher wouldn’t have been in Iraq at all if not for the allied occupation which saw hundreds of jihadists flock to the country. I think they call that irony and it’s a pity Eastwood didn’t bother pointing it out. It’s also a pity he didn’t give any of his Iraqi characters an actual personality. They are all cardboard-thin, and even the crack Iraqi sniper who is teased as Kyle’s nemesis gets not a single word of dialogue. War dehumanises people but not nearly as much as Eastwood’s film manages to.

American Sniper’s defenders (well, the ones with an IQ above 25) are suggesting all this shouldn’t be taken at face value and that the film lays bare Kyle’s contradictions for all to see. 
“He’s a decent man fighting his demons,” as a review in the Independent has it. Sorry, but I
don’t buy a single word of it. Kyle wasn’t decent; he was a mass-murderer. His 160 kills (apparently, the actual number was nearer 250) included men, women and children, many of whom he executed for the “crime” of trying to repel aggressive invaders who’d toppled their government, destroyed their homes and slaughtered their relatives. How unreasonable it was for this brutalised people (or “savages” as racist Kyle called them) to fight back. “It’s a heck of a thing to stop a beating heart,” he says at one point but you get no real sense “it’s a heck of a thing” for him at all.

Speaking on his Radio 5 review show last week, movie critic Mark Kermode mentioned Steven Spielberg was originally pegged to direct the film and that his version would have included an expanded role for the Iraqi sniper mentioned above. The idea would have been to see the conflict through both men’s eyes. It’s a promising premise but could easily have resulted in the kind of lachrymose, liberal guff Spielberg has been guilty of producing in the past. American/Iraqi Sniper: Why Can't We All Just Get Along? would still have been preferable to this though.  

Rating: W

American Sniper is in cinemas now


  1. I am reminded a bit of Black Hawk Down, which was an excellent action film except that it treated the Somalians like enemies in a video game, an endless source of targets to be gunned down without regret. I can't stand to watch it.

    1. I've never seen Black Hawk Down for exactly the reasons you mention - for some strange reason I expected more from Eastwood.