American Sniper (2014)
The nature of any biopic is that the protagonist is presented in a heroic, or at least sympathetic manner. Contrast that with our natural response to someone who has killed 160 people, which will be instinctively antagonistic, and the question of whether or not Chris Kyle is a hero becomes relevant – if not for this film per se, then at least for the viewer. Now, patriotically speaking he undoubtedly was a hero: He defended his comrades without flinching, and saved the lives of many of them. He became a hero for them because he was more skilled technically and tactically – and probably had more luck – than his comrades and enemies. That doesn't necessarily mean he was right in doing what he did, but luckily, Clint Eastwood, the director of this film, doesn't get hung up on a discussion on ethics. He wisely leaves that to the viewer. Instead he makes a film about war not as a political game, but as a dirty contest in which the losers die and the winners at best gets their old lives back.
And as a portrait of that contest, which is modern warfare, American Sniper comes off as intensely realistic – in contrast to the comparable and more decorated The Hurt Locker. In American Sniper, death is sudden and never wrapped in ceremony, like in so many other war movies. In here, nothing happens for a reason higher than the combatants' luck and skill in the moment. Eastwood gets into the minds of the soldiers, not the minds of the politicians, and argues that their thinking needs to be black and white for them to do their job. The film also touches on some of the final taboos of our time, such as the use of children in war, or the thrill of killing. The latter is something the title character never talks about, but most certainly feels – and has done ever since he killed his first deer with his father by his side. Eastwood dares to show the clean, adrenaline-rushed moment of brutality at which the sniper delivers the deadly blow. The poetry in this moment is of course never discussed or articulated, but it's apparent nevertheless – amidst its surge of masculinity.
Bradley Cooper is solid in the title role, whereas Sienna Miller does what she can with the standard wife-left-back-at-home part. This is not really a film about love and family, however, although Eastwood feels obliged to make us think that it is. In other words, Chris' wife and family are generic characters experiencing an intensified version of long since over-discussed issues on film. This is not where American Sniper has something of value to offer; that is all about Chris and what goes on around and inside him. As with many of Clint Eastwood's films, the thematics are largely male and largely American, but so is both he and Chris Kyle – and this is their story.