Clint Eastwood has possibly his biggest hit as a director with American Sniper, though its quality is of much debate. After seeing it, I find the debate around it baffling and full of what must be deliberate misunderstanding of the content of the film. American Sniper is not Eastwood’s best, it is flawed but still provoking. It shows that Eastwood is still great at what Eastwood does, which is still that kind of old west masculinity and its cost.
American Sniper is a character study, all about Chris Kyle and what made him who he was. It is a film about a man who feels forced to terrible things to protect the people he loves. He is not interested in examining the truth of that belief; to him it merely is. His motivations are illustrated but not questioned. Chris Kyle is not in the least bit introspective; he is not about to reevaluate his choices. His at least somewhat broken moral code was drilled into him since he was a child from his father, who reduces people to sheep, wolves and sheep dogs and tells is son not to start fights, but to finish them. Chris is so caught up in this that he feels he has to keep going back to Iraq to finish the fight. No matter the toll it takes on him or the people he loves, he must continue to do what he does. Even when present with out and out proof of problems, he can only ignore them. His brother comes back from the war disgusted he can only stand in confusion. Chris Kyle (just to be clear this is the movie character not the person, they are distinct) can only push away everything that does fit into his worldview.
American Sniper is told along two threads. There is the war movie, with Chris in Iraq hunting down a fictional al-Qaida enforcer known as The Butcher while constantly running afoul of an enemy sniper known as Mustafa. The heart of the movie, though, are the scenes at home, as Chris tries to reacclimatize himself to being home. The war parts range from deeply affecting to somewhat hokey. They can be highly effective, moments such as those when Chris is staring through his scope at questionable targets, like women and children, are impossible to look away from. Near the end he ends up in a firefight during a sandstorm, which despite the complete lack of visibility was clearly shot and legible. It is really just a masterwork of effective direction. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the comically overdone shot when he finally gets a bead on Mustafa. What before had attempted realism switches to a slow motion shot of the bullet as it streaks from Chris’ gun. It looks ridiculous and simply destroys the film’s illusion of reality.
Back home, Chris deals with his wife and family. While he will not admit to any post-traumatic stress, its effects on him are easily apparent. Like with the war scenes, the great shots are interspersed with the terrible ones. Chris driving his wife to the doctor shot as a chase scene is a highlight, or Chris’ encounter with a man he saved as he stares uncomfortably anywhere but at the other soldier. His wife is desperate to understand him, but he is so caught up in his role as protector that he isn’t really a part of his family. Then there are the shots of him holding the obviously fake baby that is supposed to be his child. The times when the movie is bad are so bad I don’t understand how they are in the same film as the great shots.
Despite the inherit propaganda of the title “American Sniper” I find the explosive discussion of this film as pro war propaganda to be slightly ludicrous. I don’t see how someone leaves the theater thinking this film was pro-war, let alone that it exists just to push that agenda. American Sniper is not interested in the morality of the war in Iraq, or America’s justification for being there or its effects on the Iraqis; it is merely about Chris Kyle. All else is ignored. But it does not show work to be anything other than horrific, leaving the participants dead or broken, either physically or mentally. The war that American Sniper shows is harrowing, regardless of whether that war is just or not. The only part of the movie that comes close to propaganda is the very end. That part is so blatantly manipulative that it makes the movie worse for its existence. That is much like the rest of the movie. A mix of good and bad, where the sum total of the good vastly outweighs the bad, but the bad is so bad you can’t ignore it.