‘American Sniper’ Review: Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

“The rush of battle is often potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug,” wrote journalist Chris Hedges in 2002. Although Hedge’s words were most famous for their use as an epigraph for Kathryn Bigelow’s 2008 Academy-Award winning The Hurt Locker, they could work equally well for  director Clint Eastwood’s latest thriller, American Sniper, which opened nationwide this weekend, and tells the mostly-true story of an exceedingly deadly and famous sniper, Chris Kyle.

Before the 1998 embassy bombings, Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper) was just another rough Texan, wasting away his days bullriding and drinking. Watching the burning images of 1998 embassy attacks on on TV, Kyle enlists and becomes a Navy SEAL. He falls in love with Tayae (Sienna Miller) and, after 9/11, is shipped off to Iraq, fighting as part of an American campaign in erie, devastated cities like Fallujah. Kyle is at first an unseasoned novice at war. “I just hope I can do my job when the day comes,” he says early on. Later, he manages to acquire the nicknameThe Legend. One comrade tells him: “All the guys, they know your name. They feel invincible with you up there.”

Unfortunately, American Sniper is unwilling to make Kyle appear too distinctive from the average soldier. The contrast between the dangers of battle and the patriotic celebration of fame, so excellently documented in Ben Fountain’s 2013 book, Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk, is non-existent in American Sniper. Sure, Kyle may be called “the most lethal sniper in American history,” but this marketing slogan feels empty as Kyle’s primary foes—insurgents, suspicious civilians and, later, PTSD—are the enemies of an entire generation of Americans who fought in the Middle East.

Eastwood’s artistic choice is a particular shame because of how interesting snipers are. As The Telegraph recently reported, real-life snipers “wait for days, kill in an instant, then face the consequences.” Detached and watchful, the sniper is both a participant and witness to violence. They can take on the deeply religious role of a symbolic god watching from above, gifting sudden salvation to the men on the ground. However,  American Sniper doesn’t have the slow-burning suspense that could capture a sniper’s isolation from other troops nor the exceptional camera-work or the intellectual strength to bring these ideas to life.

What’s left of American Sniper is a workmanlike, conventional combat drama. Cooper delivers a solid performance as Kyle the hero. With a Texan accent and an abundance of energy, Cooper embodies the character, but isn’t nearly as dynamic as he was in last year’s American Hustle. Like its Iraq War predecessor, The Hurt Locker,  American Sniper has its share of dread-filled humvee rides and excellently-staged raids on Iraqi homes that convey how fear and confusion can endanger both the Iraqis and the Americans. Tossing in a terrifying, claustrophobic sandstorm, Eastwood delivers a compelling climactic battle.

But what about the moral stakes of American Sniper? Zero Dark Thirty, which revealed the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, succeeded, in part, because the film provided a sense of moral closure to the 9/11 attacks. Americans watched the Twin Towers burning, and, with Zero Dark Thirty, they could watch revenge. As President Obama declared in the hours after Bin Laden’s death: “Justice has been done.”

In contrast, American Sniper lacks the emotional and moral power of  Zero Dark Thirty because there was no justice and no peace to be found in Iraq. The American invasion in 2003 deposed the horrific Saddam regime, but unleased a cycle of bloodletting that killed more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians and 4,000 American troops, with little to show in the form of strategic or human rights gains. It’s very difficult to feel morally triumphant and satisfied with American Sniper when terrorists are raising the black flag of ISIS over the very cities that Kyle once defended.

American Sniper’s lack of hope would be easier to accept if the film wasn’t intended for passive consumption. The Hurt Locker had a grisly body bomb symbolizing the almost unimaginable nihilistic tactics of terrorism. Zero Dark Thirty contained a controversial torture scene, in which a detainee is caged like an animal. What about American Sniper? When my showing finished, the polite clapping of many audience members suggested that the film traded discomfort for respect.

Perhaps most damning about American Sniper is that the film reduces the Iraq War into a simple binary of good vs. evil. No Americans are fools or cowards in the film or make unforgivable mistakes. The real Chris Kyle once wrote that “I couldn’t give a flying f— about the Iraqis” and neither does American Sniper. No Iraqi has a positive or truly significant role in the film and the events that defined Iraq’s fragile future, like the 2005 parliamentary election, are nowhere to be found in this Academy Award-nominated script.

The cost of the Iraq war is written all over Kyle and his comrades. When Kyle returns home, he stares at a blank television, hearing the guns and explosions of combat. A doctor says: “You can walk down any hallway and see guys who need saving.” Admirably, American Sniper implies that the recovery process for many veterans is just beginning. If a society wants the benefits of security, it must take responsibility for its soldiers.

But who, ultimately, will be responsible for the consequences of sending American soldiers into Iraq and the war that rages on? What mistakes have we made and what lessons have we learned? In a country still addicted, in various doses, to the drug of war, these questions aren’t merely academic; American Sniper ought to have attempted to answer them. Because when the next world-famous sniper pulls the trigger, it will be all of us left holding the gun and watching the bullet.

American Sniper is rated R for strong and disturbing war violence, and language throughout including some sexual references.