It’s hard to watch a film like American Sniper and not feel the need to draw attention to the age of the film’s director. So much unadulterated flag-waving seems dreadfully out of step with a post-Team America: World Police environment that the only reason a film such as this is getting such a wide distribution must be due to the fact that the guy who helmed it has a lot of esteem left over from previous endeavours. Clint Eastwood’s infamous argument with the chair at the last Republican National Convention is a difficult image to remove from your mind when this film plays out before your eyes.
American Sniper tells the story of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), a sniper in the Navy SEALs who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and managed to rack up an impressive (or horrifying) 160 confirmed kills in his career. The film covers his childhood, his training, his war years and his post-war years, as well as a b-plot featuring his wife and kids who are pressuring him to get out of the war before it kills him.
As an old star and director of a number of classic westerns, Eastwood fairly successfully managed to transcribe a lot of typical western tropes into the modern day setting with his film Gran Torino. Here, however, bringing the typical good guy/bad guy dichotomy to a conflict as complex and recent as the Iraq war seems thoroughly misguided. It’s terribly problematic that an audience is expected to watch most of the Arabs who appear in the film being gunned down and feel like this is a good thing.
On top of this, the film does nothing that we haven’t already seen in any number of John Wayne pro-war propaganda films from the 1940s on. The boring trope of the wife waiting at home pregnant and useless for her husband to get back from war so she can fulfil her destiny of maintaining a household makes American Sniper the product of a bygone era. It’s the type of film that Apocalypse Now made look outdated in the late ’70s.
There’s no place for nuance here. Rather than having us ask whether Chris Kyle was someone who deserves to be celebrated the film moulds the story to suit his image. Its conclusions are pre-ordained, and we’re never given the opposite side of the argument; is it normal that this man never seems aware of his own blood lust? He’s only ever troubled by the friends he lost, not by the lives he’s taken. It’s problematic to a thinking audience, but not to Clint Eastwood it seems. In cinemas 16 January 2015. Watch the trailer here.