American Sniper is a big fat box-office hit. It has become a must-see movie, not just for star-spangled flag-wavers, Oscar completionists and plastic baby fetishists, but general audiences, too. Yes, the film is a legitimately well-made drama, and can be twisted to fit all sorts of personal and political agendas. But it’s also surprisingly subversive. How? Because the filmmakers suggest that Chris Kyle is a bit of a fraud.
Many journalists, critics, and pundits have dissected Chris Kyle’s actions; whether he was motivated by patriotism, racism, or deeper psychology problems. But no one seems to be talking about how he may have made a lot of this stuff up. Or at least the film allows for that interpretation.
Screenwriter Jason Hall takes a bit of creative license and introduces a fictional character – a rival sniper – who helps balance out Kyle’s unfair superiority over the enemy, but also weakens what could have been a much more powerful allegory about the unjustness of the American invasion of Iraq. It’s an effective (if not generic) dramatic addition, and justifies Kyle’s need to return, time and time again, to a foreign country that poses no real threat to him or America. But it’s also the narrative device that questions Kyle’s self-identification as a sure-shot protector of the innocent.
The film doesn’t try to completely discredit Kyle’s kill count. But in the way it handles the enemy sniper storyline, the film does offer a subtle refutation of his heroic claims.
It’s easy to buy Kyle’s account of events as they're dramatized in American Sniper. In the final battle sequence, director Clint Eastwood shows us the al-Qaeda sniper being shot, and then lingers on the sniper’s dead body. On paper, it sounds like a simple indulgence; an incredulous victory that elevates Kyle to superhero status. He’s a man who can perform the impossible. But look carefully at the sober reactions of the supporting characters and the filming techniques used in this sequence. It's easy to conclude that Kyle doesn’t actually kill the enemy sniper. He made it up. It was a fantasy.
There's plenty of evidence. When Kyle is being briefed for his last mission, he’s told about a sniper picking off construction engineers on a building downtown. Kyle excitedly asks: “Is it Mustafa?”. But the commander answers with deference: “It can be whoever the fuck you need him to be.”
At this point, the audience, like Kyle, are craving a final confrontation. So of course we believe the sniper is Mustafa. But why the mystery? Why not have his commander at least acknowledge the possibility, or agree with the likelihood, of it being Kyle’s proto-antagonist?
The trucks roll out and we get a beautiful aerial shot of Baghdad, trailing behind a drone that flies with dream-like ease. Once above the target building, however, the camera twists, a suspended musical note plays—a signal that things are about to take a turn for the worse. We get the feeling we’re entering a nightmare.
Soon Kyle is on a rooftop, trying to figure out the enemy’s location. Another U.S. soldier is shot. Kyle, realizing he’s made a wrong assumption, scrambles to a new position. The filmmakers aren’t just telling us that Kyle is fallible in his choices, but letting us know that Kyle is literally looking at this situation the wrong way.
Eastwood, however, cuts in close to assure the audience that, yes, of course it’s Mustafa. Phew, right?
Kyle repositions to a convenient clearing in the roof. Over a mile away from his target, Kyle looks through his scope at the enemy’s probable position. Even through a magnified sight, no one is visible at the other end. Kyle’s commander points this out, and a point-of-view perspective shot reinforces this claim. It’s impossible to see anyone at that distance. When asked for confirmation, we get an even closer view: still, no one is visible. Yet when asked, Kyle confirms, confidently asserting: “Oh, it’s him.”
Kyle fires, and for the first time in the film Eastwood indulges in a bit of stylized slow-motion. This signals a departure from the grounded, realistic perspective he employs throughout the rest of the film.
We watch the bullet fly into the vast city. Crystal clear. Almost supernatural. But this is because we’re now seeing things through Kyle’s imagined perspective. The camera cuts to Mustafa in profile – also in dream-like slow motion – then we cut back to see the bullet disappear into the distance, out of Kyle’s imagined sight.
The next few shot-reverse-shot close-ups provide the imaginary face-to-face confrontation Kyle craves. Then blood explodes onto a shawl behind the enemy’s head. Kyle, looking into the distance, breathes a sign of relief. A moment later, his satisfaction is interrupted by the reality that he has given away their position to the insurgents below. His commander spells it out: “You just fucked us, Legend.”
As Kyle relaxes, a fellow solider (turned in the opposite direction as Kyle) responds with President Bush’s famously assertive – and premature (ie. wrong) – Iraq War declaration: “Mission accomplished!” The forced enthusiasm stings with irony. Kyle’s magic bullet would make Lee Harvey Oswald jealous.
From here, the film goes into full nightmare mode. A sandstorm rages over the final battle, completely obstructing the enemy and obscuring all clarity. This pathetic fallacy is used to muddy the visual palette and reflect a confused state of mind—one that comes from knowing that closure isn’t simply a target you can hit. Especially when you're lying to yourself about the truth.
But would Eastwood really rely on such misdirection without introducing the idea of an unreliable protagonist sooner? Of course not. The dolly shot when Kyle is at home, staring blankly at a television that isn’t turned on, is another clue that what he sees and what’s happening aren’t always the same thing. We hear the cacophony of a gun battle, but it’s only the echoes in his head.
At the end of the film, when Kyle has supposedly transformed into a perfect father, he walks into the kitchen with a cocked hand-gun pointed as his wife. She might not sense the danger, but we sure as hell do. This isn’t just foreshadowing of what’s about to happen to Kyle, but a blatant reminder that he’s still unhinged.
Even more telling is the sequence right before the sniper showdown. Look at the way Kyle is framed during the most emotionally charged scene in the film, when a small child picks up an RPG and aims it at U.S. troops. Kyle's spotter is also in the frame, but sitting back, staring blankly into the sky. This comes, oddly, right after Kyle has killed a man on the street. The spotter doesn’t even sit up straight and look over the ledge to confirm the kill. Are we supposed to assume that Kyle is so prolific in killing that his fellow soldiers don’t even react anymore? Is this second solider simply bored by war? Or are the filmmakers suggesting another imaginary battle being waged in Kyle’s mind?
The answer lies with the viewer. And that's the real reason American Sniper is connecting with so many people. If you look close enough, Chris Kyle can be “whoever the fuck you need him to be.”