American Sniper is a sturdy study of masculinity, from an icon of the topic: Clint Eastwood. I wouldn’t rank it among the director’s strongest treatises on the subject – the final moments are far too clumsy for that – but it’s revealing nonetheless, especially in terms of what masculinity means in post-9/11 America.
Based on the autobiography of Chris Kyle, often called America’s most lethal sniper for the number of kills he logged in Iraq, American Sniper depicts a man bred for righteous violence who comes to discover that even righteous violence has a cost.
Crucial to establishing the movie’s concerns is an early speech that Chris’ father (Ben Reed) gives to him and his younger brother at the dinner table. He tells them that the world is divided into sheep, wolves and sheepdogs, and that those “blessed with the gift of aggression” have the honor and responsibility of being sheepdogs. Intercut with this parental parable are scenes from earlier that day, when Chris’ little brother was being bullied at recess and Chris charged in to beat the bully up. His destiny is set.
It takes a while for Chris to find the proper channel for that aggression, however. After years of hanging out on the rodeo circuit and pummeling the men his lonely girlfriend brings home behind his back, Chris decides – in a burst of patriotism following the 1998 attacks on the United States embassy in Kenya – to join the military. His rifle skills, also courtesy of his father, land him a coveted spot as a Navy SEAL, which eventually gets him a ticket to Iraq after the World Trade Center comes crumbling down.
American Sniper depicts a man bred for righteous violence who comes to discover that even righteous violence has a cost.
As Chris Kyle, Bradley Cooper buries much of his charisma beneath a mumbling Texas drawl and a thick black beard. At first it seems like your standard attempt at star dimming, but the strategy pays off as Chris returns home from each tour more insular than before. (Note how he becomes increasingly anonymous in appearance, from that beard to the dark sunglasses he favors to his pulled-down baseball cap.) Cooper also makes good use of his familiar blank stare – a ripe target for his detractors, but a perfect fit for the sense of displacement Chris suffers whenever he’s not looking through the scope of his gun.
Even better is Sienna Miller, whose 2014 also included another surprisingly actorly turn in Foxcatcher. Here, as Chris’ wife Taya, she makes the most of her few scenes – and in fact anchors them as crucial counterpoints for the military sequences in Iraq, when Chris is close to death but acts the most alive.
American Sniper gives way to some standard, military-thriller fare in the Iraq scenes – its real strength is as a character study – but Eastwood does manage one deeply evocative sequence in which a mission gets swept up in a dust storm. With its ocher shadows and haphazard sparks of gunfire (the cinematographer is Tom Stern), it’s a vision of war as an all-consuming hellscape, one in which violence has churned up to such a degree that who is shooting where no longer matters.
In essence, this sequence blurs the wolves and the sheepdogs. At its best, before it concludes with a bit of hazy hagiography, American Sniper poses a sticky question: is a red-blooded American male like Chris Kyle the latter, or the former?