(Clint Eastwood, USA, 2014)
Writing about American Sniper can be approached two ways. One, begin by bracketing the real-world events, evaluating the film only on its aesthetic merits. This doesn't mean ignoring the history of the Iraq war, or of Chris Kyle's record as a violent, deeply troubled man, but it does mean to put those realities on hold, and consider the film as a parable about a soldier's life. Grant the film its fictions. Take the character of Kyle - played with great skill by Bradley Cooper - not as a faithful depiction of the real person but as a construct. How does the film portray his struggle?
The second way is to seek in the film some awareness of its real-world basis, to find ideas that may illuminate a sensibility that goes beyond the fiction. Does Eastwood evince an understanding of the politics, both foreign and domestic, that led to the Iraq war? Does he recognize jingoism when he sees it? Does he have something to say about the role of a warrior in the modern world, or in a culture as belligerent and sentimental as America's?
Formally, there's much to admire in American Sniper. Despite some occasional clunkiness, Eastwood keeps the storytelling brisk and precise. The film builds on contrasts; the clamor of war against the unsettling silence of American suburbia, the jocular camaraderie of soldiers with the emotional openness required of family life. Eastwood is a fundamentally stoical artist, viewing life with a cool, unblinking eye. Terrible things happen, war among them, but this is just How It Is. Like Woody Allen, he animates ideas, which means that the overall quality of the scenes is often uneven. Exposition-heavy dialogue, moments of bathos; these leave him untroubled, as long as the fundamentals are strong.
This kind of directorial directness is catnip to hardcore auteurists, for two reasons. One, it marks a temperament that transcends questions of craft. Eastwood's ideas are what matter, and his casual treatment of form show that he uses cinema as a means, not an end in itself. He has things on his mind, and is inspired not by art but by life; he is, in a crucial way, a kind of outsider, despite being a major Hollywood star. The second reason has to do with the role of critics as prophets. It is far more of a scoop, critically, to illuminate the virtues of someone who appears to be a mere workman than to sing the praises of an artist who is direct and unapologetic about cinema as art. This goes back to the critics of the Nouvelle Vague, who were most excited by rough-hewn, nominally commercial directors like Hitchcock, Mann, and Hawks. For those upstart French critics, these men were artists of the highest order precisely because they were able to retain an individual sensibility within the demands of the industry. They couldn't help but make art, even in the most crude and mercenary of circumstances. The landscape has changed now, due in no small part to their work, as critics and filmmakers, but the tendencies they ushered in remain in place. Eastwood has long been favored by such tendencies.
All of which is not to say that Eastwood is undeserving of praise, or that the motivations of some critics, particularly the hardcore auteurists, prevent them from telling the good from the bad. But it does represent a potential pitfall, a willingness to overlook the faults of individual films in favor of an overarching pattern among a director's body of work. A single film might inform the oeuvre while also being something of a stinker. I was late to recognize Eastwood's virtues, although I'd been amazed repeatedly by the quiet, terrible power of Unforgiven. Gran Torino, despite being riddled with scenes that are egregiously tone-deaf and flat-footed, in the end achieved a grandeur that snuck up and took me entirely by surprise. But Mystic River, despite its strengths, falters too much to be good, and falls far short of the greatness that some critics claim it achieves. Eastwood's record, in short, is spotty and even contradictory. For every high point there is a trough of silliness. For every insight, it seems, there is a counterpart of obtuseness.
Which brings us back to American Sniper. It's tempting to imagine the film that could've been, because so many relevant details have become well known. The real Chris Kyle was a complex and deeply flawed person, given to bursts of xenophobia, alcohol-fueled violence, all of which was likely exacerbated by PTSD. He appears to have been a braggart and a hothead, someone who was almost childishly naive about the ways of the world, despite his close familiarity with death. But he also had a compassionate side, and his life was cut short by a convergence of ironies: while attempting to rehabilitate an emotionally scarred fellow-veteran, he was murdered. The killing took place on a shooting range, one of the places where Kyle felt most at home. In other words, he died by the gun as he lived by the gun, but was ambushed not by an enemy but by a deranged friend.
We can't fault Eastwood for failing to film what we imagine, in the perfection of our mind's eye, would've been a richer movie. So what about the movie he made? It does touch upon Kyle's sad fate, but only as a glancing afterthought. It exhibits ambivalence about war in general, although not much about the Iraq war in particular. No awareness of the massive fraud that precipitated the war is in evidence. One character exhibits some doubt about the rectitude of the war, but it's vague and unremarkable; it's meant as a foil to Kyle's rigid certainty about the holiness of the mission. This rigidity is viewed by Eastwood as a potential flaw, but also as a kind of covert virtue: it's part of what makes him such an effective soldier.
And this model of effectiveness is the clearest view of Kyle. He's living out the prescription of his father to be a sheepdog, to protect without qualm or hesitation. But if Eastwood is coolly unpersuaded of the truth of this metaphor, which is as central to the film as it is to Kyle's character, he does little to advance that perspective. Thus the tragedy is low-order tragedy, a sigh inside of a storm of human loss. Eastwood's awareness of the moral cost of killing is palpable, and, as a great theme he's explored before, it's presence in this story is significant. But his vision of the world in which this killing takes place has the imaginative scale of a diorama. Given the emphasis placed upon his father's parable, it's striking that the most piercing irony of the story seems to be lost not only on Kyle, but on Eastwood. In his desire to protect the sheep, Kyle enlists to serve the biggest, baddest wolf in the modern world: the US Government.