American Sniper, dir. Clint Eastwood, wr. Jason Hall, based on American Sniper by Chris Kyle, Scott McEwen, Jim DeFelice, st. Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Max Charles, Luke Grimes
Here's a question: to what extent do filmmakers have an obligation to historical accuracy? What about Mel Gibson's Braveheart, a commercial success upon release, nowadays having had its flagrant errors well and truly documented? Or Argo, recipient of seven nominations and winner of three at the 85th Academy Awards, similarly exposed for its artistic licence? "Forget the facts, just tell a story", some might say. After all, who cares? It's just a movie, right? One possible answer might be that it depends on the story being told. That William Wallace came from aristocracy and not farmstead peasantry as Braveheart might have you believe arguably troubles few but History academics. But when you're dealing with perceptions of war and the assignation of the enemy to a particular country or culture, issues that arose yet again only last week, surely there does exist an obligation to report fact and refrain from muddying already murky waters.
Which brings us to Clint Eastwood's American Sniper, based in part upon Navy Seal Chris Kyle's own autobiography. Here, Eastwood mercifully soft-peddles the kind of saccharine histrionics of the kind that plagued the inexplicably acclaimed Million Dollar Baby, choosing instead to follow a relatively straight-forward biopic-narrative that sees young Kyle, conditioned by his church-going, stick-wielding Father, to see humanity as compartmentalised as sheep, wolves, or sheep-dogs, an indoctrination that ties neatly into the kind of blind patriotism revered as scripture by Kyle himself. Assuming the role of grand protector then, Kyle enlists and ends up being awarded the spuriously celebrated title of Most Lethal Sniper in US History after four tours in the Iraq War. Kyle, the film shows us, grows gradually more and more dissociative with every shore leave back home, his wife Taya (Miller) growing increasingly frustrated with his isolation and, as she sees it, misplaced loyalties. Miller and Cooper actually give rather detailed and credible performances, and Eastwood proves ever the proficient filmmaker at the grand age of 84, even if some of the intense, thick-of-it battle sequences are nothing we haven't seen before on an episode of Homeland. The problem lies in the depiction of Kyle himself, a man who by his own admission, described killing as "fun" and something he "loved" to do, as well as displaying a near sociopathic fervent zeal in going about his work. His private security firm, Craft International, features as its logo, a deaths-head skull bearing the motto, "Despite what your momma told you... violence does solve problems." All that isn't exactly in keeping with Eastwood's portrayal of Kyle as a man in pain, a reluctant hero, a rational patriot. A better film, one that really sought to question the validity of war and that explored the debilitating effect the training and conditioning process might have on young men and women, might have included more of Chris Kyle than what Eastwood deigns us to see. As it is, by the time American Sniper's credits roll over stock footage of his 200-mile funeral procession across Interstate 35, lined by hundreds of mourners, a moment scored by yearning bugle-led orchestrations, any disclosure of the complexity of the man is, sadly, forgotten.