American Sniper was the surprise movie that skipped the Golden Globes and went straight for the Oscars headshot. And yet, this late-comer missed its shot at winning Best Picture and Best Actor due to a lack of two things: duality and depth.
Chris Kyle will forever be remembered by his actions as well as this movie, and Bradley Cooper’s performance of him as both a soldier and family man deserves credit in this. However, this movie barely scratched the surface of what it means to be in war, hinting at greater depth while steering well clear of anything that may question the very purpose of battle. With potentially powerful elements such as Chris Kyle’s brother swearing against war and the opposing sniper Mustafa being given insignificant attention and focus, American Sniper lacks the necessary level of depth and duality to be Best Picture.
This movie was adapted from Kyle’s book American Sniper, and naturally adaptations are tailored for a cinematic experience. In its production, American Sniper cycled through two directors who would each put their own stamp on the film. Steven Spielberg felt that more psychological conflict was necessary in the telling of this story and contributed the opposing sniper. After Spielberg dropped out, Clint Eastwood signed to direct and created the ultimate product that we have today.
Spielberg’s focus on psychological conflict was partially depicted in Cooper’s portrayal of Kyle, highlighting the unwavering drive to never rest until the job was done that both catalyzed his success as a soldier and difficulty adjusting to family life. While this level of depth is appropriate for a movie that achieved a 73% on Rotten Tomatoes, a deeper level of duality is a necessity to be truly worthy of the Best Picture title. Below, all of my analysis is based on the movie, and any mention of Chris Kyle is of the character portrayed rather than the actual person.
The enemy sniper Mustafa was meant to be Kyle’s foil in the movie, leading a life that Kyle may have lived had he been in Mustafa’s shoes. A man forced to go to war to protect his home, his country, his family, both Mustafa and Kyle are two sides of the same coin. However, American Sniper refuses to drill down into this conflict and allow Kyle to struggle with the internal doubt that he may have done the same thing had he been forced to stop an invasion of his country. Similarly, Mustafa is not given any depth beyond him mercilessly killing American soldiers or assembling his rifle in front of his wife and child. This second image should have haunted the audience and aroused conflicting emotions when Mustafa is ultimately killed, and yet all I heard was cheering and clapping in the audience. This is not the audience’s fault completely, but rather Eastwood’s as he didn’t place sufficient trust in the audience to think and be intelligent, and thus played it safe with a black and white depiction of Mustafa and Kyle.
This theme of duality is the heart of the movie, with Kyle’s internal struggle being projected into the world around him in the form of both Mustafa and his brother Jeff. Jeff is largely a follower in Kyle’s coming of age story, standing beside him as Kyle evolves from rodeo cowboy to Navy SEAL. However, American Sniper is silent on Jeff’s decision to follow his brother into war, and this silence is made all the more powerful when Kyle runs into a changed Jeff who no longer follows his brother. This moment is so short that you might miss it if you’re trying to turn off your phone, and has about the same level of impact on the film. Cooper’s Kyle is more concerned that his brother is speaking out against what Kyle believes in, the necessity to fight in Iraq, rather than consider the trauma necessary to change a person so dramatically. And Eastwood give value to this moment. A perfect opportunity to have Kyle struggle with his return to war, made even more difficult with his brother’s apparent trauma, is given no gravity and merely skipped over. To take another life is a terrible thing, and Cooper’s Kyle shows this well after his first kill. But the struggle he faces then is forever forgotten until he returns home and has time to reflect on his journey.
On the other hand, Kyle’s PTSD is depicted very appropriately, leaving the audience with a strong sense of the level of internal trauma Kyle faces, with only a short amount of screen time dedicated to home life scenes. Kyle’s inability to cope with everyday life is well portrayed though simple interactions with others that leave you wondering just how deep the well of trauma is inside of him, and if it’s even possible to fully return. I was personally on edge fearing that Kyle may snap under the trauma and hurt those around him unintentionally. Maybe if the same level of effort was given to deeper internal conflict as it was to the over-the-top firefight at the end, American Sniper could have been the ultimate war movie that dives into the untouched territory of how a person comes back to life after war.
As a movie, American Sniper portrayed Chris Kyle with respect towards his actions and highlighted the dedication he showed to both his country and family. But for a movie to truly be the Best Picture of the year, it requires a certain level of depth and duality that leaves the audience questioning both the character’s motives as well as its own beliefs. And in this regard, American Sniper may have just missed that shot.