It won’t open until Christmas Day, but AFI Fest scored a special Veterans Day premiere last night. While this first round of critical reaction is a rather small sample size so far, we nevertheless begin with the Hollywood Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy: “A taut, vivid and sad account of the brief life of the most accomplished marksman in American military annals, American Sniper feels very much like a companion piece—in subject, theme and quality—to The Hurt Locker. Starring a beefed up and thoroughly Texanized Bradley Cooper as we’ve never seen him before, Clint Eastwood’s second film of 2014 [after Jersey Boys] is his best in a number of years, as it infuses an ostensibly gung-ho and patriotic story with an underlying pain and melancholy of a sort that echoes the director’s other works about the wages of violence.”
Variety‘s Justin Chang: “Although Steven Spielberg was set to direct before exiting the project last summer (just a few months after [Navy SEAL Chris] Kyle’s death in Texas at the age of 38), American Sniper turns out to be very much in Eastwood’s wheelhouse, emerging as arguably the director’s strongest, most sustained effort in the eight years since his WWII double-header of Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima. As was clear in those films and this one, few directors share Eastwood’s confidence with large-scale action, much less his inclination to investigate the brutality of what he shows us—to acknowledge both the pointlessness and the necessity of violence while searching for more honest, ambiguous definitions of heroism than those to which we’re accustomed. In these respects and more, Kyle—who earned the nickname ‘Legend’ from his fellow troops, achieved a staggering record of 160 confirmed kills, and became one of the most coveted targets of the Iraqi insurgency—makes for a uniquely fascinating and ultimately tragic case study.”
“But where in the past Eastwood went out of his way to understand both sides of an armed conflict, American Sniper disappointingly reduces the Iraqi characters to bland avatars of evil,” writes Tim Grierson for Screen. “Cooper’s bighearted performance anchors the film, though. As the years go by and Kyle feels further and further disengaged from civilian life, the actor hints at the man’s inner terror and impotence. Kyle isn’t someone who’s comfortable asking for help, and so his emotional paralysis is poignant, Cooper emphasising the character’s caged-rat helplessness in understated ways.”
Writing for TheWrap, Inkoo Kang, too, finds that “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.”
Updates: “Propulsive battle sequences in which sandstorms make the fog of war quite literal are the ostensible focus of American Sniper,” writes Michael Nordine for Indiewire, “but the real tension comes from our anticipation of how they’ll affect the life this sharpshooter is reluctant to return to until he feels he’s done everything he possibly can. The role represents a comfortable middle ground between the frat-house antics of Cooper’s Hangover glory days and the prestige pictures he’s transitioned into over the last few years.”
“Miller and Cooper share a convincing chemistry,” grants Charlie Schmidlin at the Playlist, “but considering what the stateside scenes need to convey, there is too little weight to their scenes. She sticks to an underwritten scene-by-scene objective cycle—love, question, regret—that falls on a silent Cooper, and the journey doesn’t gain emotional traction as a result.”
Update, 12/9: “This film’s version of Kyle is another Eastwood warrior who’s torn between the potential use and disuse of his talents,” writes Chuck Bowen for Slant. “Eastwood doesn’t normally display much of an eye for fluid, telling detail in his films, as he’s a big, blunt moralist with a Sunday school teacher’s idea of symbolism, which is to say that the hyper-vivid precision of his aesthetic here comes as something of a shock. Images hit the viewer and expand on the rebound, such as a shot of Kyle’s eye magnified through the sight of his rifle, or the terrifyingly beautiful vistas of country ravaged by a sandstorm, or the generally astonishing crackerjack editing of the Iraqi gunfights, particularly the first major battle, which confidently juggles, among its variables, a vicious dog, a drill, and the exertions of a rival Syrian sniper. A few of Eastwood’s usual visual liabilities—his underpopulated settings, his point-and-shoot staging of already dramatically obvious confrontations—serve him in a film that, like Unforgiven, thrives on a language of barrenness.”
Updates, 12/25: Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the AV Club: “Clint Eastwood directs in the old-fashioned, literal sense; he puts the camera where it belongs and gives the actors enough room to work, but not so much that they start vamping and lose track of the scene. His style is clean and shadowy, and it can be delicate as a whisper when the moment calls for it. He’s a classicist, but not a perfectionist. His work, and the later films, especially, can be rough around the edges, but one would be hard pressed to find a purer example of American movie directing in this day and age.”
American Sniper “reaffirms Mr. Eastwood’s commitment to the themes of vengeance and justice in a fallen world,” writes A.O. Scott in the New York Times:
In the universe of his films—a universe where the existence of evil is a given—violence is a moral necessity, albeit one that often exacts a cost from those who must wield it in the service of good.
The real-life merits of this idea are arguable, to say the least. As an ethical touchstone or a political principle, it certainly has its dangers. But a lot of great movies, including several of Mr. Eastwood’s, arise from the simple premise of a fight to the death between good guys and bad guys. American Sniper is not quite among them, but much of its considerable power derives from the clarity and sincerity of its bedrock convictions. Less a war movie than a western—the story of a lone gunslinger facing down his nemesis in a dusty, lawless place—it is blunt and effective, though also troubling.
Keith Phipps at the Dissolve: “Violence has never been a simple matter for Eastwood, whose films are often both fascinated and repulsed by it, from the way a thrill killer brings out the monster inside a cop in Dirty Harry to the lapsed reformation of William Munny in Unforgiven to the self-sacrificing finale of Gran Torino. Eastwood’s often treated war with weariness as well, particularly in the companion films Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima.” American Sniper‘s “interest in exploring the psychological and spiritual price of all that killing even in the service of a just war waxes and wanes throughout the film until vanishing completely, revealing American Sniper as a go-get-’em thriller at heart.”
“In more ways than one, the Iraq occupation is seen through the sight of a high-powered rifle,” suggests New York‘s David Edelstein. “The movie is scandalously blinkered.”
“Just as only Nixon could go to China, only Clint Eastwood could make a movie about an Iraq War veteran and infuse it with doubts, mission anxiety and ruination,” counters Joshua Rothkopf in Time Out New York. “American Sniper is a superbly subtle critique made by an especially young 84-year-old.”
“American Sniper proves the dictum ‘never count an auteur out’ by proving itself as Eastwood’s strongest directorial effort since 2009’s underrated Invictus pretty much right out of the starting gate,” writes Glenn Kenny at RogerEbert.com.
“The humble Kyle onscreen is Kyle with his flaws written out,” writes Amy Nicholson in the Voice. “We’re not watching a biopic. We’re watching a drama about an idealized soldier, a patriot beyond reproach, which bolsters Kyle’s legend while gutting the man.”
Updates, 12/27: Wesley Morris at Grantland: “This movie is drowning in duty—to say nothing of hoary storytelling devices and one embarrassing scene after the next for Sienna Miller as Mrs. Kyle.”
“Here’s an idea for a thrillingly new type of war movie,” suggests Kelly Vance in the East Bay Express: “Chronicle the life of Dick Cheney, former Vice President and second-in-command of all US armed forces during Chris Kyle’s tours of duty…. Of course, Cheney came away from Iraq a little better off than Chris Kyle, but such things are to be expected. America needs leaders, and leaders have more important things to think about than the problems of confused grunts and worried military dependents.”
Updates, 1/10: Chris Norris in Film Comment: “In the 15 days that elapsed between losing director Steven Spielberg and acquiring Clint Eastwood, Team American Sniper did some psychic realignment (from kickass epic to soulful profile in courage), then cast, shot, edited, and delivered a gangbusters hero’s encomium to a man who was shot to death by a troubled vet shortly after his first phone call with producer-star Bradley Cooper. That’s what the military calls a Quick Reaction Force: Eastwood, Cooper, and screenwriter Jason Hall deliver everything this tale requires, without quite squelching the ambient pathology surrounding it.”
“However we diverge politically, I have enough faith in Eastwood’s artistry and intellect to trust that he is not a black-and-white ideologue,” writes Lindy West for the Guardian:
But the same can’t be said for Eastwood’s subject, or, as response to the film has demonstrated, many of his fans.
As Laura Miller wrote in Salon: “In Kyle’s version of the Iraq war, the parties consisted of Americans, who are good by virtue of being American, and fanatic Muslims whose ‘savage, despicable evil’ led them to want to kill Americans simply because they are Christians.”
Adds Scott Foundas at Variety: “Chris Kyle saw the world in clearly demarcated terms of good and evil, and American Sniper suggests that such dichromatism may have been key to both his success and survival; on the battlefield, doubt is akin to death.”
Eastwood, on the other hand, Foundas says, “sees only shades of gray”, and American Sniper is a morally ambiguous, emotionally complex film. But there are a lot of Chris Kyles in the world.
“American Sniper prints the Legend,” grants Time‘s Richard Corliss, but still: “Directing 34 films over 44 years, Eastwood has honed his craft to its essentials: make it seem as if the story is telling itself. Skeptical viewers may pick at the particulars of American Sniper, but they’d have to admit that Eastwood, like Chris Kyle, is a superb shooter.”
“Clint Eastwood is responsible for my becoming a director,” writes Jim Hemphill (The Trouble with the Truth) at the Talkhouse Film. “Hawks, in my opinion, is the director Eastwood resembles most, though Eastwood can also lay claim to being the legitimate heir to John Ford’s throne as the cinema’s most poetic chronicler of the complexities and contradictions of the American soul. Eastwood’s films are as deep as Ford’s but as broad as Hawks’s. Like Hawks, he has an uncanny ability to jump from genre to genre and deliver the conventional satisfactions of whatever idiom he’s working in while subtly, almost invisibly, injecting the material with his own preoccupations.”
Update, 1/15: “American Sniper is a skillful cinematic transcription of Kyle’s story, but with an objectivity that can be eerie and unnerving,” writes Michael Sicinski for the Nashville Scene. The film “ultimately becomes a quicksand of contradictions. Chris Kyle is depicted as a human being virtually without uncertainty, someone whose code of honor allows him to act with an icy clarity that inevitably saved countless Coalition lives. But it also results in a film that is jarringly anti-psychological. Taken at face value, Eastwood has produced a conservative film, and a very good one. Pull at any thread, however, and we have a work of art that yields only knots of incongruity—which makes sense. None of us truly lives while staring down the barrel of a gun.”
Update, 1/18: Ray Pride for Newcity Film: “Select, obtain the target, capture with deadly force: an exaggeration of what a visually direct, understated filmmaker like Eastwood does with his subjects. Sharp physical filmmaking; a superb performance by a stewing Cooper; morally ambiguous storytelling.”
Update, 1/19: For Bookforum, Jeff Stein reviews “Kyle’s alternately self-celebrating and self-pitying book, an exemplar of the narcissism of our times. Judging by the success of Kyle’s memoir, a Sniper Housewives reality-TV franchise can’t be far behind.”
Updates, 1/23: Writing for Movie Mezzanine, Angelo Muredda suggests that “Eastwood has managed something quietly radical: an ambivalent biopic about a decidedly unambivalent American hero, and a possible rebuke to the critical narrative about his own late films.”
Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir argues that “it’s almost as unfair to describe American Sniper as nationalistic war propaganda as to describe Selma as anti-white historical revisionism. I say ‘almost’ because Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall leave themselves halfway open to that interpretation… American Sniper never shies away from depicting Kyle as racist and xenophobic, an innocent abroad rendered armed and exceptionally dangerous. After sitting through the film twice, I’m more convinced than ever that there’s a level of sardonic commentary at work that is sometimes subtle and sometimes pretty damn obvious.”
Flavorwire‘s Jason Bailey agrees that “lost in all of this flag-planting and finger-pointing and posturing is the fact that there’s a movie there—and, inconveniently for the players involved, one that’s nuanced and complex enough to resist pigeonholing by either camp.”
Update, 1/24: For the Guardian, Nicky Woolf reports that “a group representing Arab-Americans says the rate of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim threats resulting from the Oscar-nominated war film has already tripled. Citing what an executive for the group told the Guardian was a ‘drastic increase’ in hate speech on social media, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee wrote letters this week to actor Bradley Cooper and director Clint Eastwood to ask them to speak out ‘in an effort to help reduce the hateful rhetoric.'”
Updates, 2/23: “American Sniper could be read as what the late Marxist critic Robin Wood defined as an ‘Incoherent Text,'” suggests Niles Schwartz, who then goes on at RogerEbert.com to outline the ideas that Wood laid out in the fourth chapter of his book, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan… and Beyond. “While art strives to make coherent meaning out of human experience, the maker of the ‘incoherent text’ perceives the chaos that art represses and reorders…. American Sniper, while classical enough to satisfy millions of middle American viewers and infuriate others, seems in its very design to function through schizophrenic entropy, its narrative of violent stalwart heroism riddled with cancerous doubts that malignantly enfold it.”
“There’s been a lot of hand-wringing about American Sniper’s tacit acceptance of Kyle’s perspective as an endorsement of the political ideology that underlies it,” writes Chris Wisniewski at Reverse Shot. “The resulting debate already feels reductive, played out, and trumped up—American Sniper’s defenders have basically staked out ground as formalists, while its detractors have made both weak and strong claims about the ‘responsibility’ filmmakers have to a certain amount of ethical rigor and political engagement when making a film about an actual military conflict. In both instances, one gets the sense of smart people backing into positions based on a strong reaction to the movie, rather than applying a set of logically consistent standards to a particular film. It’s like they’re moving from the particular to the general rather than the other way around.”
More from Jeff Sparrow at the Baffler.