An obsession with what it takes for an individual to become a hero has guided Clint Eastwood’s late-game directing efforts to interesting pockets of modern history. His flag-worshipping brand of Americanized heroism in the face of suspected threats encapsulates a side of America audiences often sees. But to pinpoint where it overwhelms the core meaning of American Sniper is simply too difficult a challenge. Its desire to project an embellished account of Chris Kyle’s life in the United States military provides not just a sense of carelessness, but an uncoordinated vision of earnest American heroes just doing their bit. But what is their bit? For much of this feature, they swan around bars as Eastwood desperately tries to get his audience to care for Kyle.
Not entirely lacking in style, but predictable nonetheless. Eastwood’s direction puts Chris Kyle (portrayed by Bradley Cooper) through the wringer. His wife is cheating on him, his rodeo lifestyle is less than fulfilling. Like the black horse that sprints alongside his van, he wishes to be free. Apparently, the military offers that. Cutting rather quickly to the inevitable training montage, Eastwood wishes for Cooper to adapt to the deep end of biopics. Gone are the days of Bird, the experimental style and clipping of life in many forms are lacking in this predictable workmanship here. It is admirable for its complacency, for Eastwood manages the usual notes of this genre with the hands of expertise.
Still, complacent expertise is far less interesting than bumbling ingenuity. Seeing veterans bond with one another by hitting on women at bars and throw darts into the backs of one another would be worse if it weren’t for the dialogue. “You’re a bunch of arrogant, self-centred pricks,” says one lady at the bar who will, naturally, be swayed by his patriotism. Sienna Miller is a great talent, but she and Cooper are asked to shoulder the burden of red, white and blue patriotism in its dumbest form. It is the useless antagonism founded on the “greatest country in the world shtick,” an appeal to those who truly believe America is the cream of the crop. That genuine belief is founded in the direction, and it is hard to swallow when it comes across as both smug and underwhelming. Eastwood’s intentions are honest, at least, it’s just a shame they are mindless.
An appreciation for the military in film will sometimes feel like propaganda. Eastwood has the good grace to move American Sniper away from those obvious tones, yet instil the fear and less-than-glamorous lifestyle of an American soldier. Even then, the turmoil at the heart of American Sniper is inaccurate. Eastwood still inhibits the American spirit with rodeo rallies, a military appreciation and plentiful cowboy hats, but it never amounts to anything beyond a façade for poor storytelling. Kyle is portrayed as a free and fast man, living on a farm, firing rifles at deer. He is the American Dream embodied, but neither Eastwood nor Cooper can pass this message on beyond the beer-drinking stereotypes inhibited in the layabout culture.