American Sniper is a very calculated film, designed to elicit an emotional response in men like me. Men with families. White, middle-class men with wives. Men who feel guilty about not spending enough time with their kids.
I don't often go to movies so clearly designed to pander. I don't go to movies much at all. But I went anyway. After I tucked my girls into bed, after I kissed my wife on the cheek, mumbling an apology, I went off to see a film that I knew was going to piss me off.
Two hours later I left that theater in tears. Driving away, I felt pretty stupid. I'd willingly walked into an emotional ambush.
American Sniper is the story of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, a rodeo rider who at a late age joined the military to fight against Islamic extremists in the Middle East. It's a film that borrows from Kyle's memoir, a book that shares its name, and adds an epilogue about his tragic death. It's a movie that jumps between the war overseas and its effects on a family at home.
I willingly walked into an emotional ambush
But for all its attempts at subtlety, American Sniper's weapon of choice isn't its tragic love story. It’s the story of a war not worth fighting, and the people destroyed by it.
American Sniper's love story is merely adequate. By and large, the relationship on screen between Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) and his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) is an aside, and a pretty mediocre one at that. Cooper does a decent job of bringing life to Kyle, alternately showing him as a laconic paladin and a laconic father. Throughout the rest of the movie, though, he is a machine. A pure, unsullied warrior portrayed as a victim of his calling.
He's about as fascinating as any other weapon that appears on screen. That is to say, not very fascinating at all.
Taya is a two-dimensional character at best, alternately weeping and shrieking. She fills the role of sex object, mother and wife, but herself has no life outside her family. The couple's entire on-screen chemistry feels forced. Perhaps it's best symbolized in one painful scene where they argue in hushed tones while clutching a fake baby doll to their breasts. So much awkward emotion, so much effort wasted on a lifeless scene with a lifeless doll.
Even the people in Kyle's memoir, as disjointed and clinical as that book was, were more dynamic and interesting than the main characters in this film. It is as if the narrative of the film itself is holding their performances back.
And so the viewer is left with a war story set in Iraq. Much of the movie's action takes place there, and many of the arguments between Kyle and his wife are about going back to finish the fight. Kyle is committed to that war — obsessed, in a way. The action builds to a climactic engagement, one that was cobbled together from multiple anecdotes in his memoir, to create a fight that felt just as futile on screen as it would have been had it happened in real life.
And yet, that engagement was the essence of the real Chris Kyle's war. It was the distillation of Kyle's devotion to that particular battlefield, and the American warfighters on it. It cut to the heart of Kyle's love for his comrades, and for the soldiers he tried to protect. And by the end of the film, it's hard not to see how Kyle was made to stand as a totem for that war, making this phony battle all the more damning.
This kind of symbolism is a horrible burden to lay at the feet of a dead man. A dead war hero. A dead war hero with 180 confirmed combat kills. Plus two unconfirmed in Texas, and another 30 unconfirmed in New Orleans.
It would have been better to have a different man become that symbol. It would have been better to show him fighting a different battle, in a different war. But that's not the stories we have left to tell.
American Sniper is a harbinger for future films about our modern wars. Painful. Ambiguous. Contested. Open for debate.
American Sniper isn't the war movie this country needs. But it is, to borrow a phrase, the war movie this country deserves. And for that reason I wept. But I also wept for Chris Kyle, because for all the evil he may have done in his life, here I was driving home to my family, and Chris Kyle wasn't.
I wept because I was angry at him, angry for him and angry because of him all at the same time. The film just sort of got in the way.