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Why is Clint Eastwood's American Sniper polarising audiences?

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by Jasmine Crittenden (subscribe)
Sydney-based travel and arts writer www.jasminecrittenden.net
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Simplistic patriotism or complex character study?
It's been a while since a film has divided audiences with the vehemence of American Sniper. While some are railing at Clint Eastwood's perceived glorification of the war on Iraq, others insist on the film's moral complexity.

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Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle


If you ask Eastwood himself, he'll tell you he's anti-war. "I was against going into the war in Iraq since I figured we would probably trip over ourselves in some way," he said, at an early screening of American Sniper in Beverly Hills. "I had a big question when we went into Afghanistan. Did anybody ever study the history of Afghanistan, not only with the British, but the Russians? . . . Contrary to public opinion, I abhor violence." Previously, he's even described himself as sympathetic to Noam Chomsky's politics. His filmmaking history, however, reveals a pile of contradictions, from Dirty Harry, which Roger Ebert famously identified as "fascist", to the undeniably compassionate Letters from Iwo Jima, which portrays the Second World War from the Japanese perspective.

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Simplistic patriotism or morally complex character study?


In Eastwood's view, American Sniper is anti-war, in that it's a study of the psychological disintegration of one soldier and his consequently ailing marriage. The film is based on the true story of Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history. Over the course of four tours in the Iraq War, he killed 160 individuals. "[American Sniper] contains the biggest anti-war statement any film can make . . . the fact of what [war] does to the family and the people who have to go back in civilian life like Chris Kyle did," Eastwood has said. Meanwhile, in the eyes of lead actor Bradley Cooper, "for me, and for Clint, this movie was always a character study about what the plight is for a soldier . . . It's not a political discussion about war, even . . . It's a discussion about the reality, and the reality is that people are coming home, and we have to take care of them."

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The deadliest sniper in US history


Why, then, has Rolling Stone concluded that the film turns the "Iraq War into a saccharine, almost PG-rated two-hour cinematic diversion about a killing machine with a heart of gold", while Guardian critic Xan Brooks has accused Eastwood of representing Kyle as an "American Hercules, a talismanic presence in the 'war on terror'"? On one hand, such intense reactions are understandable, given the implications of Eastwood's unerring commitment to Kyle's perspective. We see everything as the protagonist would have: the 9/11 attack seems to be the only motivation for the war; the most graphic act of violence shown to us is committed by an "enemy" soldier on a child; Iraqi civilians are hardly given a voice. For a war that's proved so controversial, it's difficult to stomach.

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Criticism or glorification?


However, Eastwood's depiction of Kyle is not quite as simplistic as some critics would suggest. From the outset, we learn that he has been conditioned to accepting violence, his simplistic, trigger-happy Texan preacher father teaching him to hunt, while spouting that the world is divided into "the sheep, the wolves and the sheep dogs". In the film's unbearably tense opening scenes, Kyle fixes his cross-hairs on a child and struggles with the act of killing. It is through relentless exposure to battle that he becomes hardened and increasingly ruthless.

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Sienna Miller as Taya Kyle


The problem is that such complexity is applied unevenly. While Cooper attacks the role with potency, discipline and an unnerving stillness that's watchable and convincing, Sienna Miller, as his wife, Taya, is far too prone to melodrama and has more than her fair share of cliche-riddled lines. Furthermore, Kyle's recovery happens so quickly and seamlessly it's difficult to believe. How harshly you punish these flaws will depend on whether you see Kyle presented as American hero or as disturbed product of a deeply flawed society.

American Sniper is in Australian cinemas from January 22.
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Why? One of the most divisive films of the year
When: from January 22
Where: Various cinemas
Cost: $15-25
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