The Strawberry Criterion: American Sniper

Editor’s Note: This review of American Sniper contains mad spoilers.

Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is a notable war film, if not for the hundreds of deaths it depicts, then for the single death it leaves out. In its dramatization of the 150 confirmed kills accredited to Chris Kyle, the most deadly sniper in US military history, the film is commendably unflinching, if occasionally to a fault. Eastwood builds his story, both in action and in theme, on harsh juxtapositions: warfront and home front, pro-war and anti-, the chaotic noise of Iraqi streets and the ruminative silence of a sniper’s perch. His treatment of violence, however, is painfully consistent to the point of ambivalence. The bullets Kyle fires always hit their mark, bringing swift end to the lives of Iraqi men, women, and children, sometimes under questionable circumstances, always in graphic, unceremonious detail. People are vividly alive one second and very dead the next. Though the film too often seeks to rationalize these deaths, to remind us of the manifold American lives saved as a result, there remains ineluctable ethical and artistic value in forcing the American moviegoing public to confront the violence exacted in its name. That the foremost victims of this violence happen to be Iraqi citizens and American soldiers, in that order, seems doubly significant.

It is curious, then, that a film so enamored with death, so concerned with the psychological effects of war, would refuse to depict the murder of its protagonist by a United States serviceman. (Could fiction present an ending as tragically apt? Unlikely.) In February of 2014, Chris Kyle was shot and killed at a gun range in west Texas, the victim of a fellow veteran who was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Not only does American Sniper relegate this emblematic moment to a single, one-sentence end credit, the film simplifies so much of its message in doing so. After spending two hours breaking down Chris Kyle, showing how each kill weighed on his conscience, the incremental blows every bullet dealt to his conviction, nationalism, his manhood and his sense of self, all of that gets swept under the rug in the service of cheap closure. The choice is incongruous with the spirit of the entire film. The message it reasserts is the same dangerous principle that landed us in Iraq in the first place: American lives just matter more.

Near the end of the film, a VA therapist asks Kyle if he feels guilty about his actions during the war, and Bradley Cooper plays the scene with the demanded ambiguity, the conflicted emotion of a man in denial. He says the only remorse he feels are for the American soldiers he couldn’t save, but it’s a lie no one is buying. His eyes lack the focus they show when he’s peering into a scope. But American Sniper abandons the sentiment of that scene abruptly and completely, opting for a digestible resolution of Kyle’s alienation that is entirely unearned, misguided in its revisionism. The last time we see him alive, Chris Kyle is suddenly a reenergized husband, a doting father, the emotional mirror image of the shattered man he’d been a few scenes earlier. It’s a hero’s send-off, through and through, stripped of all complexity. A braver film wouldn’t have settled for shooting from a distance.

Final Strawberry Verdict: 3.25 out of 5 Strawberries