Oscar special: Bradley Cooper is right on target as the most lethal 'American Sniper'

Deepanjana Pal

February 18, 2015 13:12:25 IST

Remember that old cartoon, GI Joe? The theme song had agravelly-voiced men growl, "He’ll never give up, he’ll stay till the fight's won, GI Joe will dare! GI Joe, a real American hero!" That could be the song playing in Chris Kyle’s (Bradley Cooper) head when he decides to join the Navy SEALS in American Sniper. He sees a clip on TV of a post-explosion site in Iraq and the news anchor says Americans were killed in the blast. Chris decides he’s going to go to the Middle East and show those damned Muslims who’s boss.

Bradley Cooper in American Sniper. Courtesy: Facebook

Bradley Cooper in American Sniper. Courtesy: Facebook

As it turns out, that’s pretty much exactly what Chris does. As an American sniper with a terrifying record, his sharpshooting skills earn him the nickname “Legend” from the Americans while Iraqi insurgents dub him “The Devil of Ramadi” and put a bounty on his head. None of this is of any significance to our real American hero. Chris has his eyes on his targets — those “savages” who should be grateful for the presence of American soldiers but are instead trying to kill those very same men (read: every single Iraqi in American Sniper).

The way the Iraqis are portrayed in American Sniper is a Republican wet dream. If they’re not sadistically violent and duplicitous, they’re supporting Iraqis who are. Chris’s first kill is a boy. His second is a woman. Both attempt to throw a grenade at an American tank, but are stopped in time by Kyle's bullets ripping through their bodies. Blood spatters, shockingly red against the dusty landscape. This might be a city that is made up of shades of grey, but everything is black and white here. The Iraqis are the bad guys, the Americans are the heroes, and nuance is buried under the rubble of a devastated country.

The real Chris Kyle, on whose life American Sniper is based, is believed to have made more than 250 kills in the four tours that he made to Iraq. He won a bushel of medals for his sharpshooting and bravery, and this film by Clint Eastwood is perhaps best described as a shiny medal made of celluloid that salutes Kyle. Most of the jagged edges in Kyle's personality are smoothed in this film. For instance, the reason Kyle joined the army was not a spurt of patriotism, but because an injury made it impossible for him to continue as a bronco rodeo rider. While Kyle did inspire the wide-eyed hero worship that we see soldiers lavish upon him in American Sniper, there were also those who despised him enough to want to kill him. But Eastwood doesn't let us meet those angry veterans.

Perhaps fittingly for a film about a sniper, Eastwood is tightly focused upon the culture of violence that is an integral part of America’s self-image. The Second Amendment insists that the right to bear arms is essential for the security of a free state, that freedom needs someone with their finger on a trigger, and American Sniper celebrates this ethos.

As a boy, Chris's father takes him hunting and teaches him that the world is divided between sheep, wolves and sheepdogs. The wolves are evil predators, the sheep are innocents and his father snarls, “We’re not raising any sheep in this family,” during a family meal. Sheepdog are “men of a rare breed, bred to confront the wolves” and their aggression is a divine blessing because sheep need protecting.

In school, Chris draws blood by beating up bullies. As a soldier, he kills Iraqis. That he has three times the number of kills other snipers do is cause of admiration, not concern. Because he’s a sheepdog, he’s protecting his own. If Chris was a GI Joe-esque cartoon in American Sniper, this would be an easier film to watch and dismiss. Unfortunately for liberals and fortunately for right-wingers, Eastwood is a brilliant director. He and the script are quite obviously Team Chris, but Eastwood is keenly aware that the burden of being the American sheepdog, sorry sniper, is a heavy one on both Chris as well as those around him.

The Iraqis are paying with their lives for Chris’s bloodlust, but they’re not the only ones. Chris endangers fellow soldiers repeatedly because he’s only thinking about hunting his prey, not the company that’s on the ground with him. Of course killing his target would make the situation safer for everyone, but that’s not the only reason he’s doing this. He’s on a quest to vanquish his nemesis. It’s a hunt, Chris is the predator and his prey is his own mirror image — a Syrian sniper who has a wife and a child like Chris does, as well as the support of his people, again like Chris.

While American Sniper shows Chris as a family man, a brother to his fellow soldiers and a patriot, the script doesn’t pay only perfunctory attention to this Muslim sharpshooter. It’s full of gratitude that Chris leaves everything, including his humanity, behind to go kill Muslims in the Middle East. At the same time, it’s aware that the violence of war is being relished by some, and Chris is one of them. He’s not going to Iraq only because it’s his duty as a soldier to serve the country. He longs to be in a situation where he has free reign to act with extreme violence.

Much of the complexity in Chris’s character comes from Cooper’s brilliant performance. Through subtle details, Cooper adds a grain of vulnerability to Chris – you start noticing his gaze is almost lifeless at home and that for one who believes himself to be a protector, he’s awkward and uneasy around the weak and injured who need protection because they remind him that his actions have real, damaging consequences.

American Sniper is a biopic, but it’s also more than just one man's life. The film is a social document that shows us how a section of America would like to remember its recent history of violence. It’s disturbing because Eastwood is a skilled storyteller — age is doing nothing to slow this man down — so even when you disagree with the underlying message, he ensnares you with the cinematic web he weaves. If only Eastwood hadn’t been intent upon whitewashing Chris and had given the Iraqi characters the same complexity that he allows Chris, American Sniper could have been a masterpiece.

Right now, it’s a gripping film, but an uncomfortable one. Watch it for Cooper’s powerful acting performance and liberals, don’t beat yourself up if it takes till the end for you to realize Eastwood conned you into caring for a messed-up man with a bloodlust.

Updated Date: Feb 18, 2015 13:17 PM