Director Clint Eastwood sets out to have his say about man’s inhumanity to man. Arena: Middle East conflict sector. Topic: mental and emotional fallout of military heroism.
But after The Hurt Locker what is there to say about war’s corrupting power on warriors, except what can be said louder, longer, more crudely? To play the late Seals hero Chris Kyle, true-life marksman, military medal winner and memoirist (his book the source of Jason Hall’s screenplay), Bradley Cooper has donned weight and facial hair. He seems to have added crinkly-cherubic flesh to his face. You could mistake him, on a dark Fallujah night, for the bastard son of John Milius and Robin Williams. Gruffly Texan in accent, he wears an invisible sign around his neck: “Larger than life gung-ho American hero”.
Kyle’s actual nickname was “The Legend”. He notched more than 150 kills as the US military’s top sniper in Iraq. He perched on rooftops, drawing beads on Islamic prey. Hundreds of comrades, we’re told, were saved from deadly ambush — grenades, suicide vests, plantings of IEDs — by Kyle’s ambush of the ambushers.
I accept that. I even accept that after wrestling with post-traumatic stress back home, heaping anxiety on his wife (Sienna Miller, sassy yet subtle), Kyle may have become a reformed human. He helped, we’re told, other veterans recover. He helped younger marksmen train for the motherland. None of this stops American Sniper seeming, for much or most of its length, a sloppy approximation to historical plausibility. (Did Kyle never shoot a wrong or mistaken target? Did he really keep cellphoning his wife in the heat of conflict or on sniper high alerts?) None of it stops the film being — in its war-front spans at least — a shouty, weary spreadsheet about American geo-military good intentions and the place to which, we know, good intentions pave the road.