It’s fun sometimes to imagine how a change in one key part of a film’s production could make for a vastly different film. In the case of American Sniper, that would be imagining that original director Steven Spielberg had stuck with the project. Spielberg has a proven track record of tackling films set in wartime that offer complicated portraits of their central characters, from Schindler’s List to Saving Private Ryan. Even after decades of directing, Spielberg still appears to have a passion for creating films, and even when he doesn’t fully succeed, his current films are still worth watching.
Instead, we get Clint Eastwood, whose passion for directing appears to have long ago been replaced by some sort of reflexive impulse to go through the motions. Eastwood’s notorious for being efficient in his filmmaking – for example, by using a minimal number of takes – but between this and his recent take on Jersey Boys, there’s no sign of why he’s taking on the projects he’s directing.
It’s important because American Sniper is shockingly, almost completely devoid of anything resembling a reason for telling the story of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper). After a little backstory is given, the film shows Kyle joining the Navy SEALs after 9/11, then being shipped off to Iraq as a sniper. He eventually earns the nickname “Legend” as his number of kills quickly racks up. While the deaths appear to weigh on him at times, he’s mostly focused on being a soldier and putting country before anything – or anyone – else. That includes his wife Taya (Sienna Miller), who becomes increasingly upset each time he returns to Iraq rather than stay at home to help with their children.
American Sniper doesn’t necessarily take a political stance, which isn’t necessary for a wartime film. The film lacks any sort of stance, though, other than canonizing Chris Kyle. We see characters ready to rush into war, and other characters who express their doubts about being in war. There’s no weight given to their thoughts. They aren’t important. Any explanation for behavior from Iraqis is summarily dismissed by Kyle as being a natural response from “savages,” and it’s never questioned. Even if it’s not pro-America from start to finish, by approving of Kyle’s actions, it defaults to an ugly and stereotypical pro-America position.
I don’t know if there’s a way that the film could have excused all of this, but if it at least attempted to dig deeper into Kyle’s head, it might prove interesting. After all, Kyle’s “Legend” title comes from killing 160 people. Even if one can justify every single one of those kills, which occasionally include women and children, that should provide some sort of response. Outside of being increasingly agitated, especially when he’s back home, there’s little to show what’s going on inside Kyle, though. He’s doing his patriotic duty, and that trumps all. The end.
What’s most fascinating about this is that Kyle’s story is apparently a passion project for Bradley Cooper. He was signed when Spielberg was director, and he stuck with the film when Eastwood signed on. But the script doesn’t give Cooper a lot to work with, and Eastwood’s bored take on the material makes it hard for Cooper to stand out. I’m not sure that Kyle’s story is one that needed to be told, but Eastwood’s lackluster direction creates a story that isn’t exactly begging for attention.