Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is a film that evokes complicated emotions. A month after seeing it, you might still be wrestling with whether it’s powerful, profound, or propaganda. Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising. After all, Eastwood is a guy who built his career on the paradox of violence — the early shoot-‘em-ups followed by the late Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus conversion of Unforgiven. But he seems to want it both ways with American Sniper, a movie that treats killing with videogame impersonality, then tries all too quickly to reckon with the psychological fallout of those acts.
Written by Jason Hall, the film is an account of the Iraq war as seen through the crosshairs of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, the real-life sniper whose four tours made him the most lethal marksman in U.S. history. Played by a bulked-up Bradley Cooper, Kyle has a patriotic cowboy swagger and keeps others, including his wife (Sienna Miller), at a distance — an ideal personality trait for someone who shoots from afar. As muddled as the film’s message is at times, what’s undeniable is the white-knuckle force of its opening scene. Kyle is perched on a rooftop when an Iraqi mother and child walk into the road. They seem harmless. But then the woman pulls out something that may or may not be a grenade and hands it to her son. In that terrifying split second, Kyle has to decide whether to pull the trigger. The rest of American Sniper could’ve used more of that moral ambiguity. But we hardly get to know how Kyle feels about what he does. (Where’s his ”It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man” Unforgiven moment?) Instead, the film’s just a repetition of context-free combat missions and one-dimensional targets. It isn’t until the last half hour, when Kyle returns home haunted by his experience, that Eastwood finally tries to get under his hero’s skin. It’s too little, too late. C+