American Sniper: A War Movie So Bad It Might Have Destroyed The Genre

24/01/2015 2:22 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST
GONZALO/Bauer-Griffin via Getty Images
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 04: Bradley Cooper and Suki Waterhouse are seen on the set of 'American Sniper' in Malibu, California on June 04, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by GONZALO/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)

It opens, as all Warner Bros movies do, with the studio's logo, over which wafts a nice, long, Allaaaaaaah-hu-akbar. Because the first scene is set in Iraq, and everyone knows that every opening scene in a Muslim country must occur promptly at prayer time.

Not that one would have guessed the audience was about to be transported to Iraq by a Baghdadi tone in the muezzin's voice, or the particular tinniness of that one set of mosque speakers in Mosul. We know it's going to be Iraq because the film's called American Sniper, and in 2015--like the searching paeans to Vietnam of the Eighties--we've just passed the statute of cinematic limitations on creating gung-ho, quasi-propaganda films for wars American forces have been embarrassed by since 9-11.

The film tells us that Chris Kyle, a slack-jawed hick played by Bradley Cooper, is spurred into military service by being near a television at two opportune moments--the bombings of American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, and of course, watching planes hit the World Trade Center in 2001--thus lighting a hate-cocktail for a nebulous, Arab enemy and deciding to "go on over there and get them folks that done this". Yee-haw.

The first scene after namaz is Cooper eyeing a local Iraqi through his scope and having a moral dilemma about shooting a potentially innocent man fed into his earpiece by a fellow Navy Seal. He then takes his first moral risk of the film when he shoots a child holding a thanksgiving-turkey-sized explosive device, and then his mother for picking it up and lobbing it towards an American tank platoon. His earpiece congratulates him. Then, flashback, and in the 30 minutes or so it takes to catch back up to the opening scene, we are piled on with a series of war-movie clichés so thick it's a wonder we can still see any movement on the screen:

Idyllic childhood shooting things with Dad. Check. Picking up future wife in a bar after previous yokel fails to impress. Check. Going to boot camp and having drill sergeant visually nod in admiration of preternatural shooting prowess. Check. Call to weepy, pregnant wife from a war zone, presuming the unborn child is a boy. Check. And on and on it goes. There can be no spoilers with American Sniper. If you've ever seen a war film, you've seen all this before.

But what about Bradley Cooper's performance as a zapped PTSD victim, you ask? Isn't it as Oscar-worthy as a shell-shocked Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July? Well, no. Unlike Cruise's Oscar-nominated performance as a paralysed, tortured Ron Kovic, Cooper's award-season buzz seems to revolve around a particularly fleeting alchemy of looking confused, distant and Texan all at the same time.

The Iraqi characters are even more cartoon-like. More than any empathy towards regular people caught in a war zone, more than representing Iraqis, we're shown what the American soldiers see as an entire Middle East, of whom they blanketly refer to as "savages".

The only enemy combatant with any distinguishable features--besides a very well-trimmed beard--is the Anima to Cooper's Animus, the dark side's own shadow sniper, "Mustafa". And his character is drawn so thin I just got a paper-cut typing this on a keyboard. There is no mention of this anti-Cooper's motivation or how he came to be the best sniper on the wrong side of American history.

One could, in a reeling intellectual pinch, justify all this by claiming the entire film is an exercise in keeping the worldview specifically in the scope of sniper Chris Kyle. For the sake of artistic authenticity. Or, maybe, the subtext here is to expose the shallow view of the American public regarding the Iraq wars, and any on-screen ambiguity or attempt at understanding the other side would, therefore, be unfaithful to the ideology the film attempted to portray.

If any of this could be true, Eastwood's only redemption for this stinker would be to do what he did with his two WW2 films set in Okinawa--Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima --rightly praised for balancing the POVs between the American and Japanese soldiers: Release, and quickly, the follow-up, which must be called Iraqi Sniper.

Because if that's not the case, not all the hummus in Palestine is going to save this Bush-era fever dream. If American Sniper really is just what it really seems to be, then we should take a cue from Bill Hicks' reaction to Basic Instinct.

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