Like the skilled sharpshooters who feature in his latest film, Clint Eastwood has managed to bypass the precursor season and aimed straight for the big targets with the war drama "American Sniper". With 6 Oscar noms under its belt and a record-breaking opening weekend on the way, it's safe to say that the film can already be deemed a success. All that's left to ponder is whether the film has the goods to really stand the test of time.
"American Sniper" is the true story of famed Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, who is reported to have executed 255 kills in the line of duty. Based on his autobiography, the film shows us his experiences during four dangerous tours of Iraq. His military exploits are juxtaposed with his family life, where a loving wife and children are anxiously awaiting his return, afraid that each departure might be a final goodbye.
Before Kyle's military career even begins, his "kill or be killed" attitude is ingrained in his psyche from a young age. In one key early scene, his father - head of a conservative, religious household - reinforces the mantra that the men in his family will "sheepdogs", rather than weak sheep or predatory wolves.
This concept of "the protector" is the founding principle of the film's protagonist. On the macro level he's protecting America, while on a more immediate scale, he's protecting his fellow SEALs on the battlefield. How does he accomplish this? By killing as many antagonistic Iraqis as he can.
In showing us the violent details of these acts, many of the film's fundamental concerns come to light. The biggest of these is the actual filmmaking itself. In that regard, Eastwood acquits himself well. The film is riveting, intense and dare I say it, exciting. However, it's within those same thrills where it all gets a bit sticky.
Eastwood's film follows Kyle's narrow perspective of the war and with that, adopts a limited moral complexity. All of his kills are presented as justified acts and the character never seems remorseful. In doing so, the film robs the character of emotional nuance. Though this directing choice may be closer to Kyle's "truth", it prevents the drama from being as impactful as it could be. Kyle never has to worry about whether he killed an innocent civilian, so any anti-war sentiment is barely up for debate. It makes the ubiquitous presence of guns all the more disturbing. We see guns for hunting, guns for combat, guns for funeral salutes and even guns for seduction. Valor and honor is great, but what about the psychological trauma caused by the dark, murderous side of war?
Thankfully, there's Sienna Miller to bring the film back down to earth. As Kyle's suffering wife, she plays into the expected tropes but does so in a way that adds weight and balance to the film. Where Eastwood brings the audiovisual thrills, she brings the heart and the soul.
Ultimately, "American Sniper" remains a stubbornly patriotic film. Though it succeeds as a showcase of filmmaking aesthetics, this a gripping biopic that leaves you wishing there was more. We've seen the killing machine, now we want to see more of the human being underneath.
In terms of Oscar, the film has major potential. It can certainly sweep Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing and perhaps even Best Editing. Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor and Best Picture will be harder to come by, but they are certainly within reach. The film is a bona fide box office hit, so don't be surprised if it causes some upsets on Oscar night.