In many ways, the chatter that has accompanied the release of American Sniper has been par for the course for Oscar season. The film is based on a compelling true story, it concerns a subject that is always going to trigger a range of emotions and opinions (war), and it features one of Hollywood’s hottest actors turning in a career best performance. It’s the type of film that is going to garner a lot of attention, but also, inevitably, controversy. Interpretations, reactions to the work and reactions to the reactions of the work have snowballed loudly in recent weeks. After a while, it’s easy to get lost and confused in the fog and the noise surrounding the film, and there’s a lot to process in the film itself. But ultimately, the key to understanding Clint Eastwood’s divisive war (or anti-war) biopic is remembering that it’s told from a limited perspective.
The story is that of U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper, with the physique of an action figure), a man with an extraordinary gift. Does the last part sound familiar? It should, because that’s the conceit of most superhero stories. In a way, Kyle is presented as a real life superhero. The beginning of the film reveals this hero’s origin story, starting with a flashback. After beating a bully to a pulp, a young Chris Kyle is lectured by his father on the importance of having the courage to protect your own. It instills in him a mentality of duty, toughness and stick-to-it-iveness that hardens over time. Years later, when Kyle is feeling unfulfilled as a wannabe cowboy and underutilized as an American, he sees the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings on television. He enlists without putting much thought into it. To him, the situation is pretty cut-and-dried: His country is under attack, and it needs to be protected. For that, he’s willing to put himself through grueling training, he’s willing to put his life on the line, and when the situation calls for it, he’s going to be willing to pull the trigger.
Before he deploys for the first time, two important things happen. He marries a woman that he gradually wears down and woos with his charm and his kindness (rather than his bravery), and two planes crash into the World Trade Center on live television. The latter gives him even more motivation to fight for his country; the former gives him someone to live for. Together the two events dramatically raise the stakes of what’s to come. Once again, Kyle doesn’t really consider the implications or the effects of the matter (the Iraq War). That Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 isn’t a thought or a concern, because there are in fact terrorists and murderers out there committing barbaric acts. There are many others that want Americans dead, too. And, as Kyle soon learns, some of them are women and children. It takes serious resolve to shoot and kill a woman or a child, even if they are armed with deadly weapons, but, as we all know, with great power comes great responsibility.
It isn’t long before Kyle develops quite the reputation. His peerless long-range shooting prowess earns him the moniker “The Legend,” and he becomes a revered figure. However, from his very first kill, Chris isn’t comfortable with the acclaim. To him, killing insurgents isn’t something to be glorified for; it’s work that needs to be done. His kills are often spectacular, but they’re not showy; they’re methodical and efficient. Eastwood directs the battle scenes in a similar way. They’re graphic, showing you what happens when a bullet goes through a human body, when an explosion blows off limbs, when household items are turned into torture weapons, but the camera never lingers too long. Besides, you’re seeing what Kyle is seeing, and even he can only take so much.
For the longest time, Kyle insists that none of it bothers him; it’s just a part of his job, after all. But as time passes, his work starts to consume him. What he’s witnessed haunts him, even if he insists that the things he’s done have had no effect. Each time he comes home, he’s safe but changed in ways seen and unseen. His wife and mother of his two children, Taya (Siena Miller), is continuously plagued by his lack of presence in their family’s life. He’s either physically away – at war and in danger – or he’s mentally and emotionally away – there but not there because he’s thinking about atrocities that he can’t prevent while sitting on the couch at home.
With each tour, everything rises – the tension, the body count, his wife’s anxiety, his level of danger – but, as long as he’s able-bodied, Kyle refuses to quit providing his country his valuable services. As he trudges on, his legend continues to grow, as does his audacity. Every man he serves with has heard stories of Kyle’s courage and marksmanship, but the enemy has, too. An $80,000 bounty on his head makes the things that Kyle does even harder to comprehend. On one occasion, he can’t see from his post, so he leaves it to join the Marines on a dangerous ground mission. On another, he has a hunch that a family man who’s serving his team dinner isn’t telling the truth and discovers a cache of hidden weapons. When he violently drags the man away and exposes his stash to his incredulous men, it’s like the Michael Jordan flu game, all part of the legend.
However, not everyone shares Kyle’s gung-ho, honor-bound sense of obligation. Some soldiers become disillusioned with the war effort, including Kyle’s own brother and one of his closest friends. Kyle initially struggles to understand where they’re coming from. He feels resentment when a friend gets killed after writing a letter that articulated his growing inner-turmoil about the war. He feels disconnected from a society that acts as if there aren’t men dying for them on the other side of the world. But he doesn’t stop fighting until it’s nearly too late, until he nearly gets his whole team killed, in fact.
The climactic scene, which happens on his fourth and final tour, is breathtaking for two primary reasons. The first is that it’s the wildest set piece and the most desperate war scene of the movie. Once the team’s position is compromised, enemies begin flanking them from all sides; all the while a vicious sand storm closes in and threatens to wreak havoc. The other reason, though, is because of the compounded effect that the siege and the storm have on Kyle. Alone and injured on a roof, with tears in his eyes, Kyle calls his wife and tells her he’s ready to come home. It’s as if he has to be blinded by sand to open his eyes to both the insanity surrounding him and all that he has to lose.
It’s not easy at home, either, of course. Like Jeremy Renner’s adrenaline junkie in The Hurt Locker, Kyle struggles to find purpose, but what role or job could possibly compare to being the most lethal sniper in American history? Eventually, though, he finds solace in being a family man and in helping other veterans cope. Though he has his share of emotional scars, he’s in much better physical and mental shape than many of his contemporaries. Throughout the movie, we only get glimpses of how much worse it can be for those who make it home alive. A comrade who has lost his eye sight and whose face been slightly disfigured; a soldier who has lost his leg but mentions that he’s lucky to still have his mind; and a new character introduced near the end of the movie who just doesn’t look quite right. The looks are sparing because the protagonist of the film is single-minded, and, until the last act, not interested in any ideas about war that aren’t directly connected to duty. Which brings us back to the point that American Sniper is a film told from a consciously limited perspective.
The limited perspective is what makes the film challenging, and it’s what makes it what it is. But it’s also a double-edged sword, a simultaneous strength and weakness. If you’re wondering why the film has been given just about every political label in existence – pro-war, anti-war, pro-patriotism, pro-family, anti-Muslim, etc. – this is why. The movie takes the story of Chris Kyle and examines it through the prism of Chris Kyle, and Chris Kyle only. (To be clear, I’m referring to Chris Kyle as depicted in the film, not his real life counterpart.) Other characters exist only as much as they are in relation to Chris Kyle. Political thoughts are limited to those of Chris Kyle and those who are around him. And, most dramatically, the depiction of Iraqis is limited to the perceptions of Chris Kyle. This poses a handful of issues that some would characterize as problematic. For example, Kyle refers to Iraqis as savages, simply because in his world all of the Iraqi males that he sees of a certain age want to kill him. It’s obviously a generalization, but that the movie paints them with a broad brush because Kyle paints them with a broad brush – and not the other way around – is an important distinction to make. It is true, however, that the movie is not all that interested in exploring the perspective of anyone who’s not an American. Clint Eastwood isn’t obligated to do so, but the argument can certainly be made that it makes it shallower as a result.
In a way, American Sniper recalls two films that were much discussed for their depictions of real people and true events just a year ago: The Wolf of Wall Street and Captain Phillips. Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips examined multiple perspectives of a tension-riddled conflict and was much richer for it. If American Sniper would have found a way to fit in more than just the American perspective, then I think it would have been the type of film that wins Best Picture. But Eastwood wanted this to be a different type of war film, perhaps because he’d already examined opposing perspectives of war with Letters from Iwo Jima/ Flags of Our Fathers. Whatever the case was, though, what we’re left with is something very fascinating but, ultimately, very different. It’s closer to and the reaction to it has mirrored that of The Wolf of Wall Street.
With The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorcese used the limited perspective approach to deal with prickly subject matter, and came out on the other side with simple-minded Neanderthals taking the wrong things away from it. American Sniper has had the same problem, but the effects are more severe. If the worse thing that a moviegoer can take away from The Wolf is Wall Street is that if you’re a greedy, immoral asshole then you’ll get ahead in life, then, well, that’s not great. But if the worst thing that a moviegoer can take away from American Sniper is that Muslims are savages and need to be exterminated, then that’s objectively much worse.
However, none of that is to say that Eastwood or any other filmmaker should cater his or her movies to simpletons. We should all know by now that in no world does depiction automatically equate to endorsement. It’s reckless to assume otherwise. But with that being said, that doesn’t mean the effects of film should be ignored; the effects can be quite profound. Furthermore, pointing this out, as many have done in recent weeks, isn’t the same thing as disparaging the film. It’s just a part of film criticism.
Regardless of what you think of this particular film, though, it’s important that we’re all on the same page on one thing. We have to agree that when it comes to film, no matter how true, how controversial or how limited of a perspective it has, every angle should be fully examined. With great power comes great scrutiny.
Blake Baxter is the Sports Editor of Vinton Newspapers. Previously, he covered the Carolina Panthers for Football.com during the 2013 season, as well as college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. Additionally, he’s written about sports, pop culture, politics and travel for Yahoo Sports, Yahoo Voices, The College Fix, Voice of TV and Continental Driftings, among other places. He is an Iowa resident, an Illinois native and a 2013 Eureka College graduate.