This may already be quoted often (particularly by Roger Ebert), but celebrated French filmmaker François Truffaut once stated that all war movies, with their energy and sense of adventure, make combat look like fun, so therefore, it is absolutely impossible to make an anti-war movie. Famed actor-turned-director Clint Eastwood should really have taken this into account when labeling American Sniper—you guessed it—an anti-war movie (I’ll get into why later), for it fits Truffaut’s statement to a perfect T. Even so, if the film was still compelling, thoughtful, or unique in any way, I’d be far more willing to overlook things like that. Unfortunately, it’s not.
Films like Selma and—even better—The Social Network proved that you can take seemingly bland “biopic” material (MLK’s fight against racism and Mark Zuckerburg’s turbulent creation of Facebook, respectively) and make something truly special and worthwhile out of it. American Sniper does the exact opposite: it takes the potentially insightful real-life story of hardened Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, who went on four tours through Iraq before being murdered by a severely PTSD-affected veteran back home, and turns it into just another generic (if convincingly made) piece of Oscar-bait.
Bradley Cooper’s performance as Kyle has been repeatedly singled out as great, and the fact that it got an Oscar nomination only solidified that for some. To me, it’s nothing fantastic, but still solid enough to ultimately make him a worthy choice for that particular role, all things considered. His character, however, is so blandly written that even top-notch acting wouldn’t have done much to fix that. Most of the emotional beats Kyle hits just ring hollow, and his overall arc was too well-worn for me to really connect with him.
And that’s a shame, because Eastwood clearly wants you to feel for this guy, to root for him every single time he’s on the battlefield. Otherwise, he wouldn’t make Kyle remorseful of his first kill being a grenade-wielding child, when in reality, he morally refused to kill any children, and was never remorseful of any of his actual kills anyway. Funny how that works.
You may retort “Yeah, but he really did have some troubles with PTSD upon returning home, which is why American Sniper’s apparently such a big anti-war film. Even if that’s not the case [which it isn’t], doesn’t that still make him a more interesting and well-rounded character?” Possibly—if his PTSD wasn’t just shallow, but somehow also so greatly exaggerated that he literally almost murders somebody’s dog at a family barbecue. (I am not making that up.)
This appalls me even more since the film previously showed this struggle, such as when gunshots still resound in his head while he’s distantly sitting in front of a blank TV, it was in a (comparatively) subtle, graceful, and truthful way. Eastwood should have used moments like that to transition to Kyle volunteering to work with other troubled veterans (something that actually did happen for once), not gone so over-the-top that his subject nearly resembles a complete mental patient.
The ridiculous factual errors get even worse than that*. Yes, an actively deadly sniper named Mustafa did exist in real life, but the film falsely makes him such a big antagonist to Kyle (in reality, the two never even met) to the point where it’s just ridiculous. And please, don’t even get me started on the tacky Matrix-esque special effects used on the sniper bullet shot by Kyle from 2100 feet (true) into Mustafa’s head (totally false)**, or an invented side enemy named “The Butcher”—who could have been based on a couple real-life terrorists, admittedly—that likes using drills as torture weapons.
Despite all that, however, American Sniper isn’t something worth getting angry over, or even feeling any sort of emotion from, really. You sit there watching it, maybe feel a flash of sympathetic sadness when Kyle dies at the end (not shown, but lead up to in the most obnoxiously obvious way possible), and then pretty much forget about the entire movie afterwards. A much better look at the actual experience of war, as well as the kind of dehumanization Kyle clearly had, would be Stanley Kubrick’s powerful, if flawed, Full Metal Jacket (which isn’t about Iraq, but could just as well be).
*No, I’m not talking about that infamous plastic baby, though that’s easily just as stupid.
**Try watching that particular scene and telling me afterwards that American Sniper is anti-war, not the other way around. Go on. Do it.