2014 was another year when Clint Eastwood managed to produce two films is very quick succession, at the sprightly age of 84 no less. I never got around to seeing the first, musical Jersey Boys, and it feels to be already forgotten in the months since its release. The second, fact-based war drama American Sniper is a film that’s been in production for a few years and once had David O. Russell attached and then Steven Spielberg before it eventually landed in Eastwood’s hands. It’s interesting to imagine what a director as distinctly different from Eastwood as Spielberg would have made with the same material, in fact we’ve had no new Spielberg movie this year but two that he was at one point set to direct (Interstellar being the other).
Given the brisk pace in which Eastwood made American Sniper, there was a little worry that this would be some-sort of rush-job, quickly shot and edited to make it to awards season. Eastwood’s strongest critics often point to his understated visual style as a sign of perceived laziness. Very little of the finished film betrays a hurried schedule though, save for one distracting, already infamous scene where star Bradley Cooper cradles an obviously fake prop baby.
Eastwood’s camera work and editing is actually more dynamic here than some of his other recent work, particularly in the combat sequences. The film opens with an incredibly tense and effective scene; sniper Chris Kyle (Cooper) is perched on a rooftop in Iraq. He sees a woman and a young boy approaching a group of US soldiers. The mother is walking awkwardly which catches his attention; he then sees her handing what appears to be a large grenade to the child, who starts running towards the soldiers. The choice is then entirely on him whether or not to take the shot.
After this prologue, the film adopts a more straightforward narrative. It flashes back to Chris’s childhood, where he defends his bullied younger brother. His father then gives them an on-the-nose speech about how some people are “sheepdogs” – protectors of others, foreshadowing his later life. The pre-war section of the movie is its least interesting, Kyle is a cowboy, taking part in rodeos, drinking, and beating up a man his girlfriend sleeps with. It’s often draped in an ‘Americana’ tinge that’s rather corny, especially for a director as usually unsentimental as Eastwood. After seeing the 1998 US embassy bombings on TV, the aimless Kyle, fuelled by patriotism, decides to join the military. The customary training sequence is broken up when he meets Taya Renae (Sienna Miller) in a bar, beginning a relationship that soon leads to marriage.
It becomes considerably better once he gets to Iraq, the battleground where Kyle served four tours and ranked up a reported 160 confirmed kills. It could be a little repetitive – Kyle arrives, takes part in some missions, goes back home to spend time with his wife, and then returns, but there are different, nail-biting combat sequences on each of his tours. It doesn’t just focus on sniping either, Kyle spends just as much, if not more time leading teams on the ground. One thing I can credit American Sniper for is communicating the nature of combat in Iraq better than any film save perhaps The Hurt Locker.
Being completely unfamiliar with the real Chris Kyle, I don’t know how truthful this movie is. It doesn’t shy away from showing some of the horrors of war, but there are other parts that seem almost too cinematic to believe. One of the men Kyle is after is monstrous enforcer nicknamed “The Butcher” by locals. He’s fond of using a power-drill to torture and kill his victims, who include children. Kyle also has counterpart – a ruthless Iraqi sniper who he spends a lot of the film hunting. Whether accurate or not, their rivalry climaxes in a tremendously suspenseful battle heightened by an impending sandstorm.
Eastwood’s been concerned with examining the consequences of violence for some time now, best exemplified in his masterpiece Unforgiven. American Sniper thankfully isn’t just about celebrating Kyle’s kill count. Some of his fellow combatants dub him “the legend” but he doesn’t seem too keen on the nickname himself. Outwardly he justifies his kills as a means of preventing more US casualties. Kyle is never depicted as a complicated or particularly intelligent man; he’s just a guy who’s been raised to love his country and wants to serve it. It doesn’t shy away from the fact that he has a rather simplistic view of the war himself – he never refers to Iraqis as anything other than “savages”.
Inwardly, the war has clearly taken a toll on him though. As a portrait of PTSD the film could have delved a little deeper, but there is one memorable moment when, after his fourth tour, Kyle is phoned up by his wife in a bar, where he’s gone to nervously drink alone rather than head straight back to his loving family. He doesn’t seem to know why he’s done this, answering that he maybe just “needed a minute”. The bulked-up and bearded Cooper, who’s becoming a more interesting actor with each passing year, is especially good here.
The conclusion of the film also had me co-incidentally considering the exact same notion as The Imitation Game did last week. It doesn’t handle the ending anywhere near as badly as that film did, but could have emphasised it further and made a more powerful film, fitting in with the theme of PTSD.
Another angle to consider when remembering that Eastwood took this project over from Spielberg is that the two filmmakers differ when it comes to politics. American Sniper conveys the opinions Kyle held without taking an obvious stance on the Iraq war itself. Commendably, Eastwood doesn’t turn it into a flag-waving, jingoistic kill-fest. Whether it’ll be embraced by right-wingers the way last year’s tedious Lone Survivor was remains to be seen, but it never seems to be pandering to that audience. The most ‘Yay America!‘ moments are, as I mentioned earlier, the less significant, pre-war, small town Texas stuff, and it’s maybe worth noting that Eastwood himself opposed the Iraq war.
It looks like Eastwood is never going to retire from directing, he’s been a lot more hit-and-miss in his later years but American Sniper is definitely a step-up from Hereafter and J. Edgar. Whether he’ll ever make another truly great film at this stage is more doubtful, but this is a solid effort from the icon.