Bradley Cooper plays Chris Kyle, the late Navy SEAL sniper, in a stars-and-stripes emblazoned chore of a film.
While their motives and objectives couldn’t be more different, responses to American Sniper, like 2012s Zero Dark Thirty, uncover the differences in military culture between the US and Australia. In Bigelow’s film, despite the lack of fanfare and joy inherent in the version of the moment depicted in the film, there were reports that at some screenings in the US, people were cheering when Osama Bin Laden was killed. When I saw the film upon its release in Australia about a month later, by which time it was headlong in controversy that would end up jettisoning its chances at the Academy Awards, the semi-packed audience I was a part of didn’t change the tune they had maintained for the rest of the film – silence. Fast forward nearly two years, and I’m again sitting in a semi-packed public screening watching an (albeit very different) film about the Iraq war. In the US, screenings of it have been met with stunned, emotion-heavy, stunned silence and tears for minutes after the credits started rolling. At my screening? While the audience flinched at the violent scenes and were filled with dread as to how it was going to end (putting up an exact date in the last scene is never a good sign), as soon as the final frame flashed on the screen, everyone got up and left, returning to their Friday afternoon.
In the film, Bradley Cooper is Chris Kyle, a Texan who was taught to hunt early in life, before becoming a rodeo cowboy and, upon seeing television coverage of 9/11, enlists in the US Navy, eventually becoming a SEAL sniper. Over his service, he kills over 100 people, with the understandable effects reverberating into his everyday life, becoming distant from his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) and two children, who were both born while he was away. When he comes home for good, he’s unable to adjust, and, at the suggestion of a psychiatrist, starts visiting veterans hospitals and coaching them at a shooting range.
If this film and the controversy surrounding it makes me realise anything, it’s the stark differences between how the military is viewed in the US to Australia. While Australia was involved in the majority of the wars of the 20th century (WWI, WWII, Vietnam, Boer, Korean, Gulf), because of the remote geographical location and our position as a ‘smaller’ nation than the US and UK, Australia never lead the conflict, instead following allies into it, and for the same reasons, the percentage of the population involved in the military presently is much lower than the US (0.45% compared to 0.72% in the US), leading to a lot less people being personally involved. While the holiday commemorating it is used to honour all war veterans, the only military story deeply rooted in Australian culture is the ANZACs, because of the debacle of Gallipoli, where soldiers were directed to the wrong landing point.
While it’s naive to assume that all Americans would be emotionally attached to it and all Australians feel the same as me (because that’s not possible), the attachment to the military presented in American Sniper, a stars-and-stripes, badge-bearing, gung-ho patriotism, is something I simply can’t understand, because I have personally never experienced it. This is not to say one viewpoint is better than the other, I don’t want to start a pointless fight over superiority, rather the film is deeply rooted in an emotional cultural context that is completely foreign to me. I didn’t see Chris Kyle as a hero or savior, I saw a deeply damaged man who killed hundreds of people overseas, including women and children, that left a horrible taste in my mouth and an urge to leave the theatre as soon as possible and forget about it.
As I feared since hearing about it, while it’s not as all-out propagandist, ultimately it’s similar to last year’s woeful Lone Survivor, another film of nonsensical conversations that is akin to being beaten over the head for two hours. Oscar nominee Jason Hall’s screenplay, which sells Kyle as as the “Legend” his colleagues dub him as, is full of par-baked figures, not characters. Miller’s character is not so much fully fleshed out as given the description ‘barefoot and pregnant’ and nothing else, and the people Kyle encounters in their Iraqi hometowns don’t speak until the last 40 minutes or so. Overall it’s nonsensical, plainly dumb writing, unapologetic in its eye roll-inducing patriotism. It’s disjointed as it moves from scene to scene with little suspense or delivery on the potential of showing the full effects of Kyle’s trauma, backing away at the last moment. Capably directed by Clint Eastwood (his second film of 2014) in his signature playing it straight, ‘throw it at the wall and see what sticks’ manner, aside from some sharp editing from Joel Cox and Gary Roach in the battle scenes, it lacks the immediacy, tension, and ultimate skill to truly live up to its promise of being a gripping war thriller.
The verdict: The response to films like these are colored greatly by cultural perception and experience. Like how the raid scene in Zero Dark Thirty was met with applause at some screenings in the US and undifferentiated silence in Australia, American Sniper and Chris Kyle’s story exists within a very emotional context and culture different to mine, one that I simply can’t understand. The man is not the movie, the man is not the movie, the man is not the movie. I’ve said it to myself on repeat countless times, but I can’t move past it. Try as I might to separate the person from the filmmaking, in the case of the story of Chris Kyle, self-proclaimed to be “the deadliest sniper in American history”, confirmed to have killed 160 people (including women and children), I can’t remain impartial. Lazily written and directed to please those that it needs to, American Sniper is a sickening, slack film, squandering potential to consider the pertinent issues of military culture and PTSD (issues addressed much more effectively in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker).