American Sniper hits the target at the box office but misses the mark for nuance

Clint Eastwood’s biographical war drama has gained box office success both inside and outside the U.S., becoming the third highest grossing film in America in 2014 and reaching the top spot in the UK in its second week of release.

The plot is based on a book written by Chris Kyle, the most successful military sniper in American history with 160 confirmed kills that he notched up during the U.S. war in Iraq.

The film opens with a shot of Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper) lying on the roof of a building, rifle trained on a house in an unnamed Iraqi city. A woman and child emerge onto the street. The woman reveals a missile from under her hijab and gives it to the boy. Kyle speaks into an earpiece, asking whether anyone else can confirm what he saw. His partner tells him he will be prosecuted if he’s wrong. Kyle pauses, then fires and fatally wounds both the woman and child, in what became his first long-range kills.

The film then backtracks to show how Kyle reached that moment. From his boyhood days when he went hunting with his father, to being a rodeo cowboy, and then deciding to join the Navy SEALs after seeing footage of the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya. As a true Texan, Kyle wants to serve God and country.

Just before his first tour to Iraq, which came after the 9/11 attacks, Kyle marries Taya Renae (played by Sienna Miller).

Kyle’s lethal accuracy earns him the name “Legend”, with U.S. marines worshiping him for “having their backs” during ground operations. His fame also makes him a target and the insurgents slap an $80 000 bounty on his head. Even though at times during the film Kyle appears to be conflicted about what he’s doing, Eastwood skips over admissions Kyle makes in his biography, such as that he enjoyed the kills, and that he shot looters in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The film has been controversial with some saying it has glorified the Iraq war and Kyle’s role. Eastwood shows Kyle’s post-traumatic stress disorder and his almost-addiction to killing, as he ends up doing four tours, something that places incredible stress on his marriage and children.

American Sniper  is inherently problematic due to its subject matter. The U.S. has been severely criticised for sending to troops to Iraq in the first place, on misinformation that the country possessed weapons of mass destruction. There is little exploration of the politics and ideology of this decision. One scene shows how Kyle watches a young boy pick up a missile from a dead insurgent, with Kyle pleading in a whisper for the boy to put it down. Besides this, there is little else to show that killing was anything but a kind of sport to Kyle. Iraqi insurgents he labels “brutal savages”, justifying his presence there.

That said Eastwood chooses to focus on making a good but simple story, filled with gripping tension.

Bradley Cooper does well as Kyle, moving away from the comedic roles that have earned him two previous Oscar nominations (as best actor in Silver Linings Playbook and best supporting actor in American Hustle). Does he deserve to win the Oscar for best actor on Sunday night? It’s unsurprising that a poll shows the American public thinks so (after all, American Sniper doesn’t offer much in the way of political opinion). But, with stiff competition from Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything and Michael Keaton in Birdman, it seems unlikely.

Similarly, many critics feel American Sniper should not have been nominated for best picture, but perhaps the Academy felt it might boost the American public’s feelings about war, as Congress mulls whether to send ground troops to Iraq and Syria to fight ISIS.

The film is an enjoyable and tense Western-style drama, which unfortunately misses the opportunity to explore the nuances of the war in Iraq.

Rating: 3½/5

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller

Director: Clint Eastwood

Local release: 20 February 2015

Ster-Kinekor theatres are currently screening this film so movie goers can watch it before the Oscars. You can also book similar films before their general release on the Ster-Kinekor website.

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