Why does a storyteller want to tell a story? What motivates someone to do extremely hard work that involve hundreds of people in the service of something? Wouldn’t you think that person would have a vested interest in knowing those answers? Wouldn’t you hope that that person would examine those questions before spending a spectacular amount of energy and time giving a little bit of himself to a project? If Clint Eastwood did any of those things in advance of making American Sniper (2014), he kept those answers to himself by making a movie that is spectacularly without insight or personality, one that reveals little about its subject and next to nothing about its creator. It’s almost defiant in its by-the-numbersness, as if it’s daring us into calling it lazy, calling it tired, calling it cliché, hackneyed and unapproachably obscure , as if that were the point. To agree with that would be to agree that the movie has a point. At the end of a long movie about the horrors of war and the complicated line between patriotism and barbarity, the question I’m asking shouldn’t be, why did the storyteller tell the story?
Even that statement—that the movie is about the horrors of war and the complicated line between patriotism and barbarity—could be a product of my own reaching curiosity. All I know for sure is that the movie is about Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL credited with the most sniper kills in U.S. military history. We see his childhood and adolescence in Texas, his aimless ambition to be a cowboy that gets channeled into serving his country after the embassy bombings in Africa in 1998, and we see his SEAL training, we see his courtship and marriage to Taya (Sienna Miller), we see the beginning of the family that he gets to visit between four tours in Iraq, racking up 160 kills on his way to hunting down the Butcher (Mido Hamada), his Iraqi counterpart, who has been wreaking as much havoc on the American force as Kyle has on the streets of Fallujah and Sadr City. Fighting an army without uniforms means that Kyle has to make split-second decisions about who the enemy is and what they are planning to do; these decisions involve women and, often, children. With every pull of the trigger, his home becomes farther and farther away from where his wife and kids are in California.
We see all these things happen but we don’t see any of them for very long. The movie’s script chugs along at a breakneck pace, hitting every highlight of Kyle’s existence on the way. But the filmmaking can’t keep up, told in an unmotivated, check-the-box manner, so that the story doesn’t leave the screen, as if it were being told by Siri. No, a robot would be disinterested, which could lead to some interesting interpretations. Eastwood appears to be uninterested, which is anathema to interpretation, and it’s hard not to respond in kind. The movie suffers from the same malaise as Eastwood’s J. Edgar (2012), which also had no point of view. It’s not about providing easy answers or spoon-feeding meaning, it’s about posing worthwhile questions that explain why a story should be told. The world doesn’t need a movie about J. Edgar Hoover just to say it has one; something has to be brought to the table. Even ambiguity is a viewpoint, especially about a man who has to live with saving lives by taking others, but that’s not what’s at work here. If the direction is restrained (or sleepwalking), the script by Jason Hall clashes poorly, giving us scene after scene of arm-chair psychiatry or melodramatic statement making. We’re given hackneyed answers for the reasons why Kyle is the way he is (overbearing father, weaker younger sibling) and for the jingoistic basis of his patriotism (terrorist attacks seen on TV).
He makes big speeches about America being the greatest country on the planet, but neither he nor the movie examines why that admirable sentiment would push him to abandon the things he’s off protecting. Miller does the best she can but her character Taya must not only change 180 degrees from the sassy, firebrand we first meet to the doting, hand-wringing good wife that takes up the rest of the story, but she also has the undignified role of underlining the psychological strain that Kyle’s combat puts him under, constantly begging Kyle to let her in to his personal anguish, ever imploring him to “be right again.” These scenes, repeated during each of Kyle’s stateside intervals, are at best meaningless reinforcements of a simple idea and are at worst reasonable questions posed as selfish nagging. The shame is that there is a fascinating figure here in the person of Chris Kyle hinted at, when allowed, by Cooper’s complex and muscular performance. The script wants to simplify a complicated life while still including all its twists and turns. That leaves us with a muddled message and when the director isn’t giving anything either, we don’t just get an empty canvas; we barely get an easel.
Kyle’s actions do save lives and in that sense he is a hero, but it doesn’t degrade him to suggest that the war he was fighting, both on the ground and in his head, was a complex one. There are brief, blink-and-you-miss-them moments of quality here, especially in the scenes that show Kyle trying to readjust to civilian life, where the movie does its most important work, but they are gone so fast and are so disconnected from a cohesive argument that they mean nothing. Even the war scenes, which on their own are terse and lean, are just stand alone moments because they aren’t at the service of anything. What’s so frustrating is that American Sniper is both so far from and so close to greatness that in the end you almost want to convince yourself that it represents a new kind of ultra-sparse filmmaking in which the audience is asked to provide nearly all the context, nearly all the meaning, nearly all value. As it closes, you want so badly for it to shoot the moon like Detour (1944) and reveal that all the preceding mistakes and lapses in taste add up to a sum well beyond its parts. But you have to get yourself to that point; the movie doesn’t do it.
Eastwood is the leading filmmaker on the subject of evolving masculinity and he can direct in his sleep a scene in which the killing slowly kills the killer. It’s just disheartening to see him do just that. If the same type of energy and thought that made Unforgiven (1992) a masterpiece of the shadowy area of moral violence had been on display here, we might be talking about a war film unlike one we’ve ever seen, but as it is, we end up with something we’ve all seen before.