It would be easy to make a film turning all soldiers into heroes. That’s why it’s been done so many times in the past. It’s maybe even easier to play the cynic, critiquing the chaos and senselessness before and on the battlefield. It is a difficult, and challenging, task to develop soldiers into flawed heroes. There are men and women who may not always make the best decisions, but who sacrifice so much in the process, sometimes even themselves, and are heroes nonetheless. This is the story of an American Sniper.
This film takes no time to get going. We are immediately plunged into an unknown location, undefined situation, with only the familiar face of Bradley Cooper as our anchor. Less than 10 minutes in, he is faced with a horrifyingly difficult decision as the action pulls back into decades earlier, into Cooper’s real-life character Chris Kyle’s childhood.
It is through these flashback sequences thatdirector Clint Eastwood makes some of his boldest choices, by elevating the macho Texas cowboy persona into something respectable and decent. It’s easy enough, especially for blue state filmmakers, to mock and degrade anyone from the south, and everything about that culture. Chris Kyle, growing up with guns and at first becoming a rodeo cowboy, is the contemporary Texas man. He is presented to us as just that, not some bumbling inbred hillbilly. When his life comes to a possible dead end, he does the patriotic thing and joins the military – without a whit of filmmaker’s cynicism or condescension.
His experiences which follow balance the delicate line of reverence with objectivity. We see firsthand the physical sacrifices made by these soldiers, and the emotional sacrifices left back home. He is not always there for his family, and even when he is physically back home, he’s not truly “there.” Overseas, his skilled combat earns him praise from his peers, but also chastisement from his supervisors, fearing he might be getting carried away.
It’s easy enough to play the cynic, however. Whether that comes as a real-life politician commenting on the progress of war, or we as an audience member, completely separated from the situation unfolding before us. When lives are on the line and the end in sight is murky at best, the right answer is never crystal clear.
I don’t want to spoil the ending, which came as wholly unexpected but immensely powerful to me. There has been a great deal of criticism around this movie, very little of which I think comes from people who have actually seen it. American Sniper is no propaganda, no mindless patriotic trash. This is a wonderfully composed film, acknowledging one man’s choices while still granting him the respect he deserves. This is compelling, challenging filmmaking at some of its finest.