Clint Eastwood has carved out a space for himself in Hollywood as the conservative director who can make a conservative-leaning film that isn’t a complete joke. With American Sniper he turns this eye towards America’s post-9/11 wars, focusing on the story of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper). But, while he manages to avoid the oo-rah chest-beating of Lone Survivor or Act of Valor, most of the film descends into trite hagiography with little critical analysis of its central theme.
Which is to say that there is, in fact, a theme here. Jason Hall’s screenplay puts it front and center, coming out of Kyle’s father’s mouth: the world consists of sheep, who can’t or won’t act in their own defense, wolves, who prey upon the sheep, and sheepdogs, who protect the sheep from the wolves. It’s easy for left-leaning critics like me to overlook, since we’ve so thoroughly dismissed it as childish or simplistic in our own thinking, but it’s important to remember that something like half the country really does believe in this picture. Bush-era neoconservative foreign policy is rooted in the idea of a strong American military acting in this “sheepdog” role, and Kyle is revered for personally embodying this ideal.
And the film totally buys into this idea. The theme is introduced along with the father’s belt; to me it called to mind domestic violence — hardly the only point in the film that did — but to Eastwood it’s an image of strong authority and justice. The one of Kyle’s colleagues who entertains doubts about the unalloyed good of the American mission in Iraq dies for it; Kyle states explicitly that his doubts are what got him killed. The sheepdog must take his orders from the shepherd, and any wavering makes him just another sheep. I might think that the film would be better if it showed some sort of development in Kyle’s stance, or introduced some nuance that questioned the sheep/wolves/sheepdog worldview, but that isn’t the game Eastwood is playing here.
It also wouldn’t be consistent with the character of the real Chris Kyle, who was, if anything, even more dedicated to the mission than the version we see on screen. Cooper imbues Kyle with a sense of heaviness, that it was regrettable that he had to personally kill hundreds of people, but that it was necessary to protect his fellow soldiers, his wife (Sienna Miller) and family, and America in general. The real Chris Kyle seems to have shown no such compunctions, instead taking joy in killing with the dead-certain conviction that every one of his targets was a “bad guy”. In the investigation of one kill we see him insist that he saw an AK-47 rather than the Koran the man’s family claims he was carrying; the film neatly excises Kyle’s defense: “I’d like to [shoot people carrying Korans], but I don’t.” Eastwood is smart; that sort of comment plays a lot better with people who already believe in moral absolutes than with the half of the audience he’s trying to convince.
So Eastwood doesn’t need a character arc to get at his point here. All he needs is what he offers: a sequence of episodes, each one reemphasizing that the highest good is to be a protector figure, and that Kyle embodied that ideal. Even after he rotates home for good, he finds a way to be a protector for physically and mentally wounded veterans. And of course this mentorship is sufficient therapy for his own post-traumatic stress, since he’s no weak sheep that needs outside help and protection himself.
The point of the film is that “sheepdogs” like Chris Kyle and the American military are a glorious force for good, and the one bulwark against the “savages” who are at best craven collaborators with the “wolves”. It seems remarkably one-sided and jingoistic, especially coming from the director who once set up Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima as a diptych. But examining that sort of discrepancy is just the sort of nuance that Eastwood clearly wants no part of here.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.