Thoughts on “American Sniper”

A sniper is detached from the situation on the ground. A sniper’s eyes dart around, taking any sudden movement as a potential threat. A sniper, lying still for days on end, is always alert, and his finger hovers around the trigger no matter where his thoughts take him. A sniper, when forced to take a valuable shot, relies only on logic and the greater good. So what makes a “great” sniper? A sense of detachment from the world below? A lack of empathy? A constant wariness and alertness, never lapsing into a state of calm? As Eastwood’s film shows us, these are the qualities that make not only a great sniper, but a “Great American Hero”.

Bradley Cooper is phenomenal. His performance shows us the hyper-masculine, OOH-RAH US soldier, and the flashes of vulnerability when this character he puts on is threatened with the reality of his circumstances. The film tells the story of how Kyle got into the SEALS, naively intercutting his dedication during the training process to shots of him reacting to 9/11 with fury, perhaps sticking a little too close to his self-mythologising autobiography in the process. It also flashes back to points in his childhood, where a beat-the-manhood-into-them dad played by Gerald Butler explains that people are either “wolves, sheep or sheepdogs”, establishing a black-and-white morality that Kyle is forced to confront once children holding grenades get involved.

The film feels a lot like Eastwood’s classic western, Unforgiven, in this regard. Eastwood is concerned with how heroes are formed, and the personal sacrifices one must make in order to become that figure. Kyle is a lone cowboy, never letting anyone in. He has to view his targets as the “wolves” because it’s the only way he can function in this environment.

People have accused the film of war glorification and unwarranted patriotism. While these comments could be explained by their precious indie flick not getting the Best Picture nod instead, I can understand the complaints. Not commenting on the Iraq war is in itself a comment. It portrays a few everyday, innocent Iraqis as victims to the militant Islamists, the terrorists, the “savages” who drill holes into children’s heads while their wailing parents watch. I have no doubt horrific shit like this happened, but the film neglects to mention that these “savages” wouldn’t be there if not for the US occupation, or show us any sign that the war maybe wasn’t a great idea. Then again, I’d be willing to give it a pass because this film is about how Kyle sees the war; a man who doesn’t question his country and who, when given a task by his commanding officers, does it well. 

The film puts us in this man’s headspace. Any sudden movement is a potential threat, and the terrific camerawork and editing jolts the audience as Kyle reacts. When a wounded veteran reaches out to him, Kyle is clearly uncomfortable. When another soldier reveals how much he hates the war, he reacts with genuine bewilderment. In one powerful scene, the doctor takes Kyle’s heart-rate while his wife is being treated, and it’s staggeringly high. This is a guy that never lets his guard down. He can only process the world through a sniper scope.