Critics seem bizarrely divided on American Sniper, which opened in the UK yesterday. Some think it’s the sort of simplistic right-wing fable you’d expect of an avowedly Republican director, Clint Eastwood, who famously bizarrely addressed an empty chair at the Republican Convention. (Incidentally, no one at the time pointed out that this was a common technique in Gestalt therapy – it presumably indicates Clint has been in counselling at some time.) Others think it’s been misunderstood by the American heartland who have adopted it so enthusiastically, in the same way as Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA was misguidedly adopted on the campaign trail by Republican White House contender Bob Dole.
The truth is somewhere in between. Psychologically, it is a nuanced, understated portrait of the havoc war can wreak on even the most untroubled Texas good ol’ boy psyches: the back-home drama, in between the most lethal sniper in American history’s several tours of duty, concerns the attempts of his wife (Sienna Miller, rather good in a thankless role which has only two settings, winsome at the start and whinesome for most of the rest) to get him to come home in mind, not just body.
Politically, it is dishonest in establishing an implicit connection between the Twin Towers atrocity and the Iraq War, and profoundly racist by omission. Yes, this is the soldiers’ story, but still there is not one – not one! – sympathetic Iraqi character. There is no suggestion (and this sadly may be true to life) that any US soldier is in Iraq to help free its people from tyranny; they talk only of protecting America from attack.
And of the many departures from the real-life memoir of sniper Chris Kyle that you would expect of any Hollywood blockbuster, the exaggeration right from the first scene is telling: Bradley Cooper as Kyle is, in his first assignment as a sniper, confronted with a situation where a mother hands a grenade to her little boy and sends him running towards American soldiers. Kyle must decide whether to shoot the child. “That is evil like I have never seen before,” he says after.
You’d have to agree – were it true. A similar incident does indeed open the memoir, but there is no child, only a woman. The film never once departs from this presentation of the Iraq War as a pure struggle between “good” (the guy even carries a bible wherever he goes) and “evil”.
Okay, aside from the politics, is the film “good”? It’s well acted, as I said, and the combat scenes are gritty and tense; if you like war films you’ll probably enjoy this one. But in the usual Clint style it’s directed efficiently rather than brilliantly; if you hadn’t seen the name on the credits, you would have no idea which film-maker was behind it. Actually, there is one clue. In a couple of bizarre and, frankly, risible scenes, Kyle and his wife hold a “baby” that is so obviously a doll that it shatters the suspension of disbelief. Clint is famous for his two-takes, let’s-get-this-done approach; presumably he just didn’t want a real crying baby to hold up the day’s shooting.
Which seems to be the approach overall: why let crying liberals get in the way of a story America can be proud of?