It’s never a good idea to start a review by citing a critic who will forever remain better than you, but when discussing American Sniper it seems necessary. Roger Ebert famously said that one of the reasons movies were socially and culturally important was that they were “empathy machines”, putting us in the shoes of characters whose lives have circumstances we would otherwise not be able to relate to. When viewed under this criteria, American Sniper is a significant failure; it is designed to emotionally engage right-wing, god-fearing American audiences and is of no interest to international viewers or (heaven forbid) people with different political views. For a filmmaker whose recent movies have so frequently been opposed to the Republican party’s stance on international conflict (Letters from Iwo Jima and Gran Torino are two of the finest pacifist movies ever made), it is somewhat disheartening to see Clint Eastwood retreat to his political impulses to make the most Republican movie of his career.
The movie is a biopic of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, played by Bradley Cooper in an inexplicably Oscar-nominated performance. Kyle is a man notable for having the most kills of anybody in US military history, with reports ranging from 160 to 255. In its (few and far between) best moments, American Sniper charts the psychological damage that comes with murdering people for a living, in a way that makes it a perfect companion piece to the two aforementioned recent Eastwood efforts. Sadly, Eastwood repeatedly falls back on the scare-mongering on the war on terror that seems inexplicable from a filmmaker of his calibre, even despite his well-publicised political views. There are sequences solely designed to emotionally manipulate American audiences that will produce nothing but eye-rolls from international viewers.
Early on, this is best represented by the scene where Kyle and his wife (an underused Sienna Miller, playing the same “troubled wife” role she did far better in Foxcatcher) witness the 9/11 attacks on television. The best movies made about the fall-out from the 9/11 attacks are free of emotional manipulation and manage to convey the complexity of the war on terror; it just happens to be a coincidence that those movies were directed by a British person (Paul Greengrass) and a democrat (Kathryn Bigelow). American Sniper not only manages to use one of the darkest moments in American history as mere set-dressing, it then refuses to give nothing more than a simplistic view on the war on terror it prophesises against repeatedly. The action sequences should be edge-of-your-seat tense; instead, they can only be described as fear-mongering of the worst kind. It could be unironically re-scored to the Team America: World Police soundtrack, so blatant is the central ethos of “America: Fuck Yeah” engrained into every single frame of the movie.
Last summer, one of my housemates went on a holiday to New York. Whilst there, he visited the ground zero museum that pays tribute to both the victims of the 9/11 attacks and one of the most iconic buildings in American history. He was somewhat depressed by the fact the museum had a gift shop attached to it, where you could buy all sorts of 9/11 memorabilia that could be best described as tasteless. American Sniper is the cinematic equivalent of that gift shop – it repeatedly milks human tragedy for commercial profit. When Zero Dark Thirty was released, Kathryn Bigelow was accused of being a propaganda filmmaker like Nazi documentarian Leni Riefenstahl, just because her movie showed the torture techniques the US military were using against prisoners of war.
Clint Eastwood could more accurately be called Leni Reifenstahl, as he is a clearly intelligent filmmaker offering a simplistic view on a complex war, in a way that makes it blatantly obvious that he is only trying to incite reactions from American viewers (the imagery that plays out over the end credits only furthers this). A better comparison for American Sniper would be Nation’s Pride, the Nazi propaganda film that is central to the plot of Inglourious Basterds. That movie-within-a-movie was also a biopic of a deadly sniper who was notable for having over 200 confirmed kills – but even that seems somewhat restrained in comparison with the overwhelming right-wing attitude of Eastwood’s movie.
American Sniper has succeeded at what it set out to do: provoke hysterical reactions from right-wing American viewers and a feeling of crushing indifference from everybody else. Its notable the movie was rushed into post-production to have it compete in time for the Oscars; it’s a movie whose subject is so important that the movie was bound to get nominated if released during awards season, regardless of the finished product.