Breaking box-office records, receiving six Oscar nominations, and stimulating a mass of controversy with it’s ersatz babies and alleged patriotism, Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper has hogged the limelight for weeks now.
Though everyone’s been talking about how this film has raised serious questions over the political power of cinema, remembering the dissension caused by The Interview only a month ago, a quick summary and review of the film itself is needed before any kind of dissection is done.
Clint Eastwood has had a directorial career as impressive as his acting one, being nominated for four Best Director Oscars and winning two of them (Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby). It is based on the life of Chris Kyle, more accurately it is based on Kyle’s autobiography American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, and how the military seemed like the perfect profession for him.
Both the film’s narrative and visual aesthetic are reminiscent of Kathryn Bigelow’s latest works The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, the former in particular as we witness the protagonist’s inability to readjust to normal life after seeing the horrors of war. A particular scene in which Kyle mistakes the sound of a shooting car exhaust for a gun demonstrates this well.
Many hypotheses have been thrown around, when it comes to the film’s ‘true meaning’, if one even exists. I’m of the opinion that the film is actually anti-war. I believe Eastwood, intelligently uses the dynamic between protagonist and antagonist to subvert cinematic norms. Of course, Eastwood has starred in many spaghetti-westerns in his time, a wave of films in which characters wear their morality on their sleeve. Though there is a continuation of certain tropes of the spaghetti-western genre (the rival sniper always wearing a black bandana, much like the villainous cowboys would wear a black hat), I would say he is using convention to undermine and comment on today’s cinema and the cowardice by certain directors by avoiding the truth.
I believe what Eastwood is trying to say is that ‘the most deadly’ sniper title shouldn’t be lauded, and, though murder is legal in a state of war, Kyle still took the lives of 160 men. We should be asking ourselves what the difference between the rival sniper and Kyle is, both fighting for their countries and to protect their compatriots, but they are both killers. Eastwood is forced to use subtleties in cinematic form to portray this undermining ideology because a film that blatantly condemned the troops wouldn’t have received the $250 million box office success it did but it quite simply wouldn’t have been made.
Another interesting case study that relates to this is Paul Greengrass’ Green Zone which rather directly addresses the legitimacy of the U.S’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. The film bombed at the box office which shows what the general public thought of it, yet key figures like Michael Moore have this to say about it: “I can’t believe this film got made. It’s been stupidly marketed as an action film. It is the most HONEST film about the Iraq War made by Hollywood.” The difference with American Sniper is its subtlety, having a very capable director to allow it to receive the Oscar nominations it has, and, of course, having a handful action scenes à la Black Hawk Down too.
As far as the validity of the Oscar nominations go, I believe they’re all deserved and understandable inclusions in the respective categories. Bradley Cooper’s physical transformation and Southern slur was very convincing indeed, though I will be surprised if the award ends up in his hands by the end of the night. The film itself, as I mentioned, is generally good but falls a fraction below Eastwood’s other works.
A film that people have been forced to watch by the buzz it’s created, it merits a viewing and will undoubtedly act as a conversation centre-piece.