In with a bullet

American army sniper team

American army sniper team

In with a bullet

Robert Henderson reviews an American blockbuster

American Sniper

Main cast:

Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle

Sienna Miller as Taya Renae Kyle

Max Charles as Colton Kyle

Luke Grimes as Marc Lee

Kyle Gallner as Goat-Winston

Sam Jaeger as Captain Martens

Jake McDorman as Ryan “Biggles” Job

Sammy Sheik as Mustafa

Mido Hamada as “The Butcher”

Director Clint Eastwood

This is a frustrating film. Eastwood as the director guarantees that it is technically well made. It moves at a good pace, taken individually the action scenes in Iraq are dramatic and the subject (the role of the sniper) is interesting in itself. And yet, and yet…. American Sniper has an emptiness, the sum of its parts being decidedly less than the parts. The film teeters on the edge of being boring.

The bulk of the film is devoted to Kyle’s four tours of Iraq, with much of that screen time devoted to sniping and house-to-house searches. Therein lies the first problem with the film as drama. The action scenes become repetitive because there is not that much difference from watching Kyle shoot one person from the top of a building and seeing him doing the same thing to several people. Similarly, the house to house searching has a sameness about it when the streets look the same and the outcome is always either dead bodies after an exchange of gunfire or the taking of prisoners.

There are attempts to vary the emotional content of the sniping, for example the first people Kyle shoots are a young boy and his mother who are attempting to use a grenade against US soldiers. There are also subplots involving an Iraqi sniper known as Mustapha who is portrayed as having a duel with Kyle (which Kyle wins) and a search to find the al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi which involves tracking al-Zarqawi’s second in command known as the Butcher for his delightful habit of torturing people with an electric drill.

But all this activity generates a curious lack of tension because the events rarely develop into more than snapshots. Nor is there any sense that Kyle or his comrades have any real purpose beyond the immediate end of preventing American troops from being harmed. Ironically, what the film unintentionally does is to provide a depressing essay on exactly how futile not only the Iraq war but any war fought by Western Armies in Third or Second world countries is fated to be.

The sniping scenes are somewhat strange. Often Kyle is shown shooting from the same position on more than one occasion. This is a “no no” for a sniper unless he really cannot avoid it. Understandably snipers are both hated and feared by the other side for the constant threat they offer not only in reality but in their enemy’s mind. Consequently, the enemy will make great efforts to locate and kill snipers and the most likely way of doing that is if a sniper stays in the same position and shoots more than once. Modern sniper rifles come with equipment to dull and distort the direction of sound and suppress the flash of a round being fired but this is not a complete solution to the problem of giving away your position. To remain in the same position and fire other shots after the first round has been fired is just asking to be located and killed. There is also a bizarre episode towards the end of the film when Kyle shoots the sniper Mustapha at well over 1,000 yards range and in doing so alerts Iraqi insurgents to Kyle and his fellow soldiers’ whereabouts who immediately attack the building in which Kyle and his comrades are hiding.

Because the film is trying to cram in so much there is little opportunity for character development even of Kyle who is rushed from one scene to another with breaks every now and then for a return to the States for leave with his wife. Apart from Cooper the only other character with an extensive part is Sienna Miller as Kyle’s wife Taya. She is adequate in the role but it really does not demand much of her beyond agonising over how Kyle “isn’t here” even when he is. The rest of the cast does what it has to do well enough in the very limited and unvaried scenes in which they appear.

There is also a frustrating lack of historical context. Kyle’s motivation is ostensibly a simple unquestioning, God-fearing patriotism built upon the Bush administration’s line that the USA was in Iraq to protect Americans in America. That is reasonable enough for Kyle’s character but there is nothing to balance that mentality, no character to challenge his simple faith.

Finally, there is the problem of Bradley Cooper as Kyle. Cooper strikes me as one of those actors who can only play him self. That is not necessarily a problem as many film stars have shown, but the person must have qualities which make him appealing such as charm, menace, sexual attraction. For me Cooper lacks any exciting or engaging quality. In American Sniper he is seriously miscast for this film requires not only a convincing tough guy but also a character with some emotional hinterland. Cooper is both unconvincing as a hard man and displays as much psychological subtlety as a brick wall. His limitations are particularly exposed in those episodes of the film where Kyle is home on leave. These are designed to variously show Kyle’s detachment from ordinary life and addiction to living in a warzone, but these are cursory and unconvincing. Ryan Gosling in the role would have made the film much more interesting because he has both psychological depth and is a convincing hard man.

The ending of the film is deeply unsatisfactory from a dramatic point of view. Originally the ending was going to be centred on Kyle’s shooting to death by a disturbed ex-marine Eddie Ray Routh who has just been found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole. But Kyle’s wife asked them to drop the scene and the director substituted a tepid ending showing Kyle leaving with Routh to travel to the shooting range where the killing took place with a very anxious Sienna Miller looking on as if she had a premonition of what was to happen, something which must surely have been a post hoc addition to the real-life story.

Judged by the box office takings American Sniper has been immensely successful in the USA although criticism of the film’s subject matter has generated violent responses in the mainstream and social media. In particular, there has been ill judged criticism from Michael Moore that snipers are cowards because they kill without putting themselves in danger. This is double-dyed nonsense. To begin with snipers have to be on constant guard against being spotted and shot themselves. In a war such as that in Iraq the risk and fear of being seen and killed is enhanced because it was a war fought in towns and cities where there is no readily recognised enemy who may be anywhere and come in any human form from a young child to trained soldier.

To that rebuttal of the charge of cowardice can be placed a more general exculpation of snipers – that war has never been anything but ugly and unchivalrous. When the crossbow was introduced in mediaeval times it was considered illegitimate by the nobility because the armoured knight was vulnerable to its bolts. The weapon also had a range much greater than that of a conventional bow and thereby meted out death from a serious distance. Later the same sorts of complaint were levelled at firearms. Long before modern breech loading artillery was devised muzzle-loading guns could send their shot miles. By the late 19th century the machine gun had arrived with the capacity to mow down dozens of men quickly. By the middle of the twentieth century bombers were delivering huge payloads from a great height onto civilian populations. Sniping is no more or less cowardly, no more or less brutal than war is generally.

More pertinent perhaps are the criticisms that the Kyle of the film is a sanitised version and that he was far from being the simple God-fearing patriot of the film. Indeed there are strong reasons to infer that he was both a braggart and a fantasist who made up stories such as claiming to have gone down to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and killed many of the “bad guys” who were looting. Yet in the film he is shown as being intensely embarrassed when a veteran of Iraq stops him in a store and praises him effusively for what has done.

Overall the film has a nasty whiff of propaganda, if not intentionally then in effect. If you go to see it bear that in mind and treat it a primer for an understanding of the ordinary American’s mind.

ROBERT HENDERSON is QR’s film critic 

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