I watched American Sniper last week. As a piece of entertainment I thought it was fine. As a political statement I was less sure.

Clint Eastwood is an ardent Republican with a lot of old school views, but he’s also a clever man and a fine film maker. I watched this movie conscious of his political sympathies, but unwilling to believe that he would be so partisan as to fix the story to support hispolitics.

He’s a sophisticated man, but on the face of it the characterisations in this film were of highly unsophisticated people. I oscillated, my viewpoint shifting between what I saw on-screen and what I was inclined to believe. I still don’t know for a fact, but think if this is intended as a piece of propaganda – as many have said – then it’s crude and unsophisticated, and speaks only to those who already share that perspective. It’s not going to convince anyone else.

It certainly didn’t convince me. It will upset many, but many of the leading characters in this film were portrayed as what I’d call dumb. I don’t mean dumb as in stupid, I mean dumb in the sense of blind, unreflecting, and receptive only to a partisan opinion. For people like that it’s a very black and white world, goodies and baddies, America is the greatest country in the world, and the Iraqi’s – the towel-heads – are nasty people.

Now I such narrow and superficial thinking is disappointing, to say the least, regardless of the nationality of the person – and it’s not just American’s who suffer from that. In many patches of the US this simple perspective is deeply ingrained in the hearts and minds of patriots who don’t think twice about their received views. Simply scrolling through Twitter was enough for me to understand the range and passion of opinion.

There’s a lot in this movie I could not relate to then. Some of that is politics. Some of it is national character – as an Australian I have a much drier perspective on issues of patriotism and duty, and so on. The flag waving sentimentality of the American heartland is foreign to me, and to most Australians.

Overall that means that this movie will mean different things to an American than it does to those who are not. Kyle is represented in the eyes of the other characters as an American hero, an ideal of American virtue. It’s a superficial response to him based on the sheer number of kills he achieves. He is legend, the American warrior par excellence, hooha!

Kyle is more complex than that – as represented in the movie, at least. He was also a very troubled man, scarred by his experiences of Iraq. This is shown, acted out, but never really examined in the movie. There’s reference to how he’s haunted by the men he wasn’t able to save, as if he was not ever able to do enough, but only in passing is that exposed as a glib, deflective response. Still, it’s this nuance that makes me wonder if Eastwood is commenting on the conduct of the war as much as he is on American duty (always American).

I don’t think it’s a great movie. It’s a good movie that has been made significant by what people perceive it is saying. Watching it I thought it was Hollywood-ised in places. It just didn’t ring true, or make sense. Later I found out that two key elements of the movie were inventions of the scriptwriter’s. I can understand why they did that – they added dramatic depth, and meat to the narrative – but it detracts from the integrity of a movie purporting to be the true account of a real person.

I sound negative, and perhaps I am in terms of the hype leading into this. I’m also a fan of Eastwood, and expect a lot. It’s a very well made movie, as you would expect from Clint Eastwood, and as pure entertainment it’s fine. Bradley Cooper is also exceptional as Kyle.

Unfortunately it’s weighed down by political significance and hype. As a piece of propaganda – if that’s what it is – it’s  an abject failure. I finished watching it with my existing beliefs further confirmed, and in fact felt some minor annoyance thinking that the arguments of the American right could be so shallow. I’m not sure if it’s meant to be a political tract, as it has been assumed – I can’t believe Clint would be so crass – but if it’s not that then it fails by not being anything else either.


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