When the 2015 Oscar nominations were announced last week, I put "the parade of accolades for American Sniper" at the top of my list of poor decisions the Academy voters made this year.
The Clint Eastwood movie, about one of the most effective snipers in American military history and his journeys from the United States to Iraq and back again, is a passion project for its star, Bradley Cooper, who optioned Chris Kyle's memoir himself. But the connection Cooper apparently felt to the material has translated on screen to a mediocre movie that Cooper can't elevate and an illustration of just how much fear of being seen as political can deaden a story.
Given the attempts to discredit Ava DuVernay's Selma over questions of its historical accuracy that many commentators have treated as an excuse not to engage with her often very fine filmmaking, it seems important to me to emphasize all the ways in which American Sniper is mediocre as a movie. But in American Sniper much more so than with Selma, these questions of accuracy and politics interact with concerns about quality, specificity and dramatic tension.
There are moments when American Sniper captures the beauty of Iraq, or the odd moments when destruction produces an image that is striking rather than simply terrible. Chris (Cooper) and a Syrian Olympian named Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), who has joined the Iraqi insurgency, thread the scopes and barrels of their sniper rifles through metal latticework and stone balustrades. Chris and his colleagues make their way up beautifully tiled stairwells; in a room that has been repurposed for briefings, a military map doesn't quiet cover an enormous mosaic; a palm tree burns like a pinwheel.
In one of the more subtle moments in the film, we see the country from the perspective of a circling drone rather than through Chris's scope. The images come fast and vertiginous, and they lack the kind of granular architectural - not to mention human - detail that Chris and the camera capture closer to the ground. Eastwood doesn't need to underline the difference explicitly or parse whether the use of drones or snipers is more moral or effective. He just lets the shot linger with us.
If only American Sniper had more of this sort of trust in its viewers. Instead, these moments of vision feel like lapses away from the baseline Eastwood otherwise adheres to so rigorously.
In building out the character of Mustafa, the Syrian sniper who doesn't speak in the film, Eastwood frames him like a serial killer. We see his gaze linger on the stock of his rifle, and Eastwood's camera captures him from behind as he ties on a head scarf, as if he's putting on a super-villain mask. Mustafa twirls a bullet on a table while his wife watches, holding their baby. At one point, Eastwood points the camera up from the bottom of an alley and captures Mustafa leaping across the rooftops as if he's Aladdin.
The same heavy signaling shows up when Eastwood wants us to know a veteran is having a hard time. When Chris encounters his younger brother Jeff (Keir O'Donnell) on a tarmac as both are shipping out for Iraq again, Jeff's face is sallow and there's something missing from his eyes, even when Chris tries to buck him up. That same vacant look appears again on the face of a veteran Chris is headed out to help in the movie's final scene. Eastwood manages to characterize SEALs who are enthusiastic about war in unique ways, but his cinematic vocabulary is decidedly blunter and more limited when it comes to depicting men who can't handle war the way Chris does.
This same obviousness characterizes the dialogue, which mostly consists of characters stating subtext out loud instead of talking to each other like actual humans. "You got a gift," Chris's father (Ben Reed) tells him after he shoots his first buck. A few moments later, young Chris (Cole Konis) perks up in church when the pastor notes that sometimes "We don't see the glory of His plan," as if the first scene wasn't enough to signal to us that Chris might be something special.
When Chris grows up, a cheating girlfriend tells him "I do this to get attention, don't you get that?" When Chris comes home from his final deployment, clearly reacclimating poorly to civilian life, his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), insists "I need you to be human again." Chris finds a role for himself in civilian life in taking veterans, especially those who have experienced grave wounds, out shooting. "Seriously, man, why do you do it?" one asks him. "We take care of each other, don't we?" Chris tells him. This is not dialogue. These are placeholder words that tell us what dialogue is supposed to convey. But somehow, Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall never got around to making the switch.
Again, there are rare exceptions. When Chris meets Taya, the woman who will become his wife, she thanks him for getting her out of a bar. "I think I rescued that bar from you," Chris jokes. Later, when Chris teases Marc Lee (Luke Grimes) about reading Punisher comics on a stakeout, Marc swipes back, "It's a f****** graphic novel." The best of these types of moments comes when Biggles (Jake McDorman) announces that he's bought his girlfriend an engagement ring in Iraq. "You bought it from savages? How do you know it's not a blood diamond?" Chris demands to know. "You gonna tell her where you got it?" "F*** no," Biggles tells him, loose and funny. "I'll tell her I got that s*** from Zales."
A movie that sounded like this in any consistent way might be vigorous and alive, but "American Sniper" does not, and is not.
All these filmmaking choices diminish the movie. But so do the liberties Eastwood and Hall take with Kyle's memoir of the same title and with the facts (when Kyle lived, the story he told and the truth could not always be counted on to be the same thing). So do their decisions to sand down Kyle's personality and politics, turning him safer and ultimately blander.
The central duel between Chris and Mustafa is both a source of many groan-worthy moments in "American Sniper" and also an invention. "While we were on the berm watching the city, we were also watching warily for an Iraqi sniper known as Mustafa," Kyle wrote in his memoir (the movie gives Mustafa a different nationality). "From the reports we heard, Mustafa was an Olympics marksman who was using his skills against Americans and Iraqi police and soldiers. Several videos had been made and posted, boasting of his ability. I never saw him, but other snipers later killed an Iraqi sniper we think was him."
Eastwood might have made better use of this subplot if the movie was the story about how Mustafa and Chris came to be hunting each other, but that would require Eastwood to devote equal time to Mustafa's story, which he does not do. It would also require him to consider if Chris is the kind of stone cold killer the movie suggests that Mustafa is.
American Sniper might have been better off cutting Mustafa altogether and focusing more on some of the wrenching scenes where Chris has to decide whether to shoot women and young Iraqi boys. These stories are modified only slightly from Kyle's memoir, and they are quite effective.
Eastwood and Hall also strip away most of Kyle's politics and attitudes toward Iraqis; out on the awards season stump, Bradley Cooper has repeatedly insisted that the film is personal rather than political.
In the film, Chris uses the word "savages," but American Sniper doesn't make room to explore the depth of his contempt for Iraqis. He drove cars at them at high speed to see them get scared: "Their high-pitched screams, coupled with sprints in the opposite direction, had me doubled over. Cheap thrills in Iraq were priceless," he wrote in his memoir. He bragged about stealing from their homes against orders. He compared them to American welfare recipients in their dependency and inability to handle freedom.
And Kyle saw his distaste for the people he was fighting as explicitly connected to his faith. "On the front of my arm, I had a crusader cross inked in," he wrote. "I wanted everyone to know I was a Christian. I had it put in in red, for blood. I hated the damn savages I'd been fighting. I always will. They've taken so much from me."
In a scene in the movie, Chris is accused of shooting someone who was carrying a Koran he mistook for a weapon. In the film, he protests that he couldn't possibly have done such a thing. But in his memoir, Kyle writes that he told "investigators" - his quotation marks - that "I don't shoot people with Korans - I'd like to, but I don't."
I understand why Eastwood might have wanted to avoid these elements of Kyle's memoir, as well as his views about the hunt for weapons of mass destruction and his distaste for civilian leadership of the military. They make him a harder sell, both to people who already see the war on terror as racist and to those who adamantly deny that the conflict is any way animated by bias.
But while it might be the work of a priest or a counselor to speak only the best of the dead, no one who claims to be engaged in a serious character study can present only the parts of a man's life that feel most convenient. Given that Kyle wasn't shy about or ashamed of his views of the people he fought and killed, the way Eastwood and Hall edit his views suggests a certain incompatibility to their impulses. Do they want to honor the man, but only the parts of him they find admirable? Or do they truly want to understand him, even if they cannot like everything they find?
Eastwood might have taken a different, but equally political, approach.
"There are those who have been blessed with an overpowering urge to aggression and a need to protect the flock," Chris's father tells him in the movie after, as a child, Chris gets into a fight with a boy who was bullying his brother Jeff. "I will whip your ass if you become a wolf. But we protect our own."
The line between a wolf who hunts for the joy of violence and a sheep dog who corrals his flock is a difficult one to keep clear, and Eastwood could have built a great deal of tension out of Chris's stated intention to walk it carefully and his actual ability to do so.
In Kyle's memoir, he brags of breaking up gang activity by beating sailors aboard the USS Kitty Hawk, of brawling with ultimate fighters, of flipping over cars, of decking a man who insulted a waitress. He didn't include in the book more extreme stories he apparently told to acquaintances, including a tale of shooting or helping to shoot 30 people during looting that took place under the cover of Hurricane Katrina, and another of killing two men who tried to carjack him at a gas station.
Eastwood has no obligation, of course, to present events that he doesn't believe happened, including the Katrina and carjacking stories. But it's curious that he excludes both Kyle's fanciful stories of violence committed out of uniform and his mundane ones. Including some of these bar fights, or at least evaluating why Kyle might have told the carjacking and looting stories, could have let "American Sniper" pose a series of powerful questions: Was Chris Kyle a sheep dog? Or did he become a wolf? And what happens to a wolf who thinks he's still protecting the flock, when in fact he's simply gratifying his own violent urges?
American Sniper might not have been nominated for a raft of Academy Awards or cleaned up at the box office on its first weekend had the film been more liberal or more conservative. But a willingness to engage with Chris Kyle as he was almost certainly would have made American Sniper a much better movie.