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‘American Sniper’ Review: War Plays Out Like a Video Game in Clint Eastwood’s Navy SEAL Biopic

Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller headline Eastwood’s attempt to anoint a popular war hero for the modern age

“American Sniper” is an uncomplicated portrait of a man denied complexity and depth. Played by a pinched, marble-mouthed Bradley Cooper, the late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle is laureled for his patriotism, his 160 kills (the most in U.S. history), and his roles as a husband and father.

Director Clint Eastwood‘s focus on Kyle is so tight that no other character, including wife Taya (Sienna Miller), comes through as a person, and the scope so narrow that the film engages only superficially with the many moral issues surrounding the Iraq War.

In its best scenes, “Sniper” illustrates how Kyle’s removal from humanity made him such an excellent marksman. The Texan prefers the idea of people to actual people and has no qualms about his dismayingly provincial us-versus-them worldview. He regularly calls both Iraqi insurgents and civilians “savages” — an epithet Eastwood doesn’t necessarily endorse, but doesn’t repudiate, either, since not a single one of his Middle Eastern characters are endowed with basic motivation, let alone humanity.

“Sniper” follows its cowboy-turned-SEAL protagonist from the moment he enlists in the military — after the U.S. embassy attacks in East Africa by Osama bin Laden — through his four tours of duty. Much of the running time is simply one raid or gunfight after another, with little sense of the political or military context or the timeline of the war. There are no scenes exploring the drudgery of the tedium of war, only more missions.

The result is not unlike watching a suspenseful but highly repetitive video game, especially since nearly every Iraqi is seen through Kyle’s highly perched rifle scope. The appearance of each Iraqi character incites the same algorithm: shoot or don’t shoot, shoot now or shoot later. (As the only character resembling a human being, Kyle is the only military member who ever feels queasy about shooting and killing so many people.)

Eventually, a narrative emerges: the SEALs search for a brutal enforcer, nicknamed “The Butcher” (Mido Hamada), linked to al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. But the structure is too episodic and the narrative too disjointed for the search process to yield any of the joys of the procedural. At least the hunt for “The Butcher” ends in a gorgeous sandstorm sequence that’s one of the most visually arresting battle scenes in recent memory.

As redundant as the action scenes become, they’re far preferable to the dreary domestic conversations, which rehearse only the most rote troubles afflicting military families. And bordering on offensive is the film’s assertion that some soldiers can overcome PTSD in a matter of months through good acts and willpower.

Eastwood is enough of a skilled craftsman that he doesn’t entirely neuter Kyle into the perfect role model. As rendered here, the Navy SEAL is full of blustery patriotism and hyper-masculinity, badly beating the guy who sleeps with his girlfriend and earnestly declaring America to be “the greatest country on earth.” (Reality check: people all around the world believe this about their own homelands.)

In a flashback, Kyle’s father (Ben Reed) anoints him as “blessed with the gift of aggression.” And one of the film’s most out-there scenes finds a cheerful Kyle aiming a revolver at a charmed Taya, playfully demanding that she remove her underwear at gunpoint while their children play just a few feet away.

Such scenes will be read as problematic by the soft-hearted (like myself) and admirable (or cathartic or sexy) by others. What makes “American Sniper” such a deeply unsatisfying film, though, is that Eastwood recuses himself by and large from delivering a judgment. Perhaps the ambiguity regarding Kyle’s unexamined nationalism and chest-thumping manliness merely reflects the dividedness of the country on social mores, but, like the ubiquitous Punisher skulls on Kyle’s troops’ tanks, it’s not clear whether it’s meant to be disappointingly juvenile or fearsomely awesome.

If Eastwood’s feelings toward Kyle’s core values are hazy, though, his veneration for the soldier couldn’t be clearer. It’s too bad, then, that cinematic hero worship so often takes the same familiar forms. Writing on this Veterans Day, I wish “American Sniper” had afforded me the opportunity to salute real men and women in uniform, not just a movie trope.