Even the most acclaimed movies directed by Clint Eastwood struggle with internal moral contradictions. There's pacifist posturing in the ultra-violent Unforgiven and a message of tolerance supposedly carried by a rank racist in Gran Torino. Even the pro-feminist Million Dollar Baby rests on a misogynistic foundation.
There's an impulse to write off American Sniper as the politically conservative filmmaker's salute to the gung-ho patriotism of Chris Kyle (brilliantly portrayed by Bradley Cooper), the real-life Navy SEAL credited with more kills—officially 160, but probably more—than any sniper in U.S. military history. And that impulse is partly correct. But on a second viewing, the duality Eastwood injects into his film adaptation of Kyle's 2012 autobiography comes into focus.
Kyle, born in Texas and weaned on God and guns, leaves the rodeo to enlist after the 1998 U.S. embassy attacks. Eventually nicknamed "Legend" by his comrades, he's a larger-than-life figure: a jut-jawed sheep dog armed with a sniper rifle and the single-minded purpose of protecting his fellow soldiers. But Kyle's four tours in Iraq take many ghastly turns. His first kills are a mother and child, both attempting to lob an anti-tank grenade at a convoy of soldiers.
"You're going to make a fine hunter some day," the young Kyle's domineering father tells him. As his dedication begins to evolve into obsession, the prediction recalls Ernest Hemingway's observation that "certainly there is no hunting like the hunting of man and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never really care for anything else thereafter."
When Kyle's shell-shocked younger brother (Keir O'Donnell) declares "Fuck this place" before heading home on leave, Kyle responds with a look mixing shock, disgust, pity and anger. And while Kyle tattoos a Crusaders' cross on his arm, the (actual) last letter sent home by fellow SEAL Marc Lee (Luke Grimes) and read by his grieving mother at his funeral, asks, "When does glory fade away and become a wrongful crusade, or an unjustified means by which consumes one completely?"
When Kyle blusters that Lee's creeping doubt is the reason he died, it crystallizes the dichotomy of American Sniper. Eastwood steadfastly honors Kyle's service and heroism, refusing to tarnish it with any unsavory details of his real-life subject. The director tries to contextualize the bloodlust in Kyle's memoir (echoed periodically in the film) by inventing a brutal insurgent enforcer called The Butcher, whose instrument of choice is an electric drill, and an antagonist named Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), a former Syrian Olympian turned terrorist sniper. Eastwood also excises the alcoholism, bar brawls and jail stints that plagued Kyle's postwar life with wife Taya (Sienna Miller, less than stellar) and his children.
However, the film also casts Kyle as an anachronism. He possesses little capacity for nuance or patience for the ethics of a conflict without clear purpose. And while Kyle eventually comes to recognize the toll of war on himself and his military brothers, his inability to fully understand it proves to be his downfall.
Chris Kyle is John Wayne (or Clint Eastwood) in a post-9/11 epoch, a red-white-and-blue-blooded gunslinger in a world without white hats and black hats, where all is shades of gray. In that respect, American Sniper is an elegy for both a man and a mythology.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Flesh wound".