Part of me can't help thinking that Clint Eastwood has a gleeful twinkle in his eye about the apoplexies American Sniper is giving a lot of critics and observers. Following a series of under-achieving films whose pleasant irrelevance seemed to suggest a filmmaker on the decline that started taking seriously his newfound status as the last of the American classics, American Sniper is on track to be one of Mr. Eastwood's biggest box-office hits, as well as a lightning rod for political commentary in an America highly polarized.
Essentially a biopic of the late Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL who became the most lethal combat marksman in the history of US Armed Forces, the film seems custom-designed for the "red state", "Fox News" constituency that often cries foul at "liberal Hollywood". But that was also the "bread and butter" audience for some of Mr. Eastwood's most popular 1970s vehicles - making it clear that this is not a film "out of character" for a director who, in more recent and thoughtful efforts such as J. Edgar, Flags of Our Fathers or Letters from Iwo Jima, seemed to embrace a whole other moral complexity, and departed from the traditional black-and-white, good-vs-evil simplicity.
Much has been made of American Sniper's ejection of big-picture politics in favour of an openly hagiographic tone for the tale of a patriot who enlisted after 9/11 and, after leaving the Navy, went on to help disabled veterans (eventually dying at the hands of one of them). And, when compared to the nuance and complexity of most of Mr. Eastwood's later classics, American Sniper is clearly a lesser work that harks back to an earlier, more idealized era in American filmmaking, where "recruiting poster" was not a dirty word.
On the other hand, though, neither do I find it the jingoistic claptrap so many paint it as. Even though it's ultimately a hagiography of Kyle adapted from the autobiography he published before his death, there is a calculated ambiguity to Bradley Cooper's portrayal of the man and to Mr. Eastwood's approach: the constant if discreet pushback from fellow soldiers (or Kyle's own enlisted brother) who have doubts about the Iraq war, the inability to readjust to real life once back in the States, suggest that Kyle's is one of many possible views. Also, there is a deliberate indecision between choosing the man and the soldier, Chris the Texan hunter and rodeo cowboy and Kyle the lethal operative, the killing machine and the family man.
In so doing, the director paints a curiously flawed picture of the American hero behind its apparent invulnerability, its cracks showing even when he denies them, with Mr. Cooper's intensity managing to add to the ambiguity rather than subtract from it (and, let's face it, Mr. Eastwood has always been good at drawing great performances from unlikely actors). But, yes, all of this does take a backseat to the war and to the esprit de corps inherent to soldiering, despite the evidence that war is hell.
What I suspect bothers many is that, after a series of half-hearted prestige projects, American Sniper seems to bring back the more inspired, straight-forward, no-nonsense side of the director as Invictus or Hereafter couldn't - in the service of an equivocal story of a war many would prefer to forget, while apparently blithely ignoring the true cost in blood and treasure of a decade of wars to hail the all-conquering hero. An all-conquering hero that, in the end, was felled by his own brother - but even that is overlooked in the triumphant, and ill-judged, coda with real-life footage from Kyle's funeral procession.
All of that is true, but it doesn't make American Sniper the "betrayal of the liberal values" that Mr. Eastwood as a director seemed to hold in high esteem in some previous films. After all, this is the man who made Firefox and Heartbreak Ridge alongside Unforgiven and A Perfect World; Any Which Way But Lose and The Gauntlet alongside Bird and White Hunter, Black Heart. And, no matter how you stand politically in regards to the theme of American Sniper, the fact remains that this may possibly be, in purely cinematic terms, the director's best, most classic film in a long while: a return to what he does best and knows how to do best.
Cast Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Luke Grimes, Jake McDorman, Cory Hardrict, Kevin Lacz, Navid Negahban, Keir O'Donnell
Director Clint Eastwood; screenwriter Jason Hall; based on the book by Chris Kyle with Scott McEwen and Jim de Felice American Sniper; cinematographer Tom Stern (colour, widescreen); designers James J. Murakami and Charisse Cardenas; costumes Deborah Hopper; editors Joel D. Cox and Gary Roach; effects supervisor Michael Owens; producers Mr. Eastwood, Robert Lorenz, Andrew Lazar, Mr. Cooper and Peter Morgan; production companies Warner Bros. Pictures, Mad Chance Productions, 22nd & Indiana Pictures and The Malpaso Company in association with Village Roadshow Pictures North America and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment
Screened January 15th 2015, UCI El Corte Inglés 9, Lisbon (distributor press screening)