In American Sniper’s final mission, US Navy SEAL sniper, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), spots his target in the distance. The target is an Olympic shooter who’s been tracking Kyle for the bounty placed on his head. From his current position Kyle’s target is picking off US military one by one. Kyle faces a dilemma. There are two problems with the shot he needs to make: it’s a vast distance that he will likely miss; and the shot will give away his unit’s location. Kyle chooses to take the shot and hits his target.

American Sniper’s director, Clint Eastwood, chooses to depict the gunshot in slow motion, emphasising the time it takes for the bullet to reach the target, and the bullet’s moment of impact. But what’s the effect of depicting the shot in this way? And did Eastwood make the right choice?

“Does the slow motion bullet glorify killing?”

In my review, I cited the decision to use slow motion as one of the ways Eastwood glorifies killing in the film (note I don’t argue the entire film glamorises killing, instead suggesting the attitude to killing is confused throughout). On the surface, this holds true. We see the culmination of the film in this one last shot – one of the film’s longstanding and significant antagonists has been eliminated. It can be read as a resolution, as a ‘win’. As audiences have seen so many times in Hollywood before, slow motion is frequently used to make action look ‘cool’ (just watch any Michael Bay movie). By using slow motion here, Eastwood risks fusing the ‘cool’ – the thrilling, and the exciting – with the killing of enemies in war.

But could Eastwood’s decision also signify something else? Perhaps his slowing down of time is intended to reflect the nervous anticipation in those brief moments after pulling the trigger: the visual representation of the volume of thoughts and feelings Kyle processes so rapidly? In other words, does Eastwood use slow-motion to represent the reality of taking that shot? Even this seems unlikely. While slow motion gives audiences the space to think, it is visually at odds with realism and, more likely, reminiscent of fantasy.
Bradley Cooper American Sniper

A more probable explanation for Eastwood’s use of slow-motion is that this final sniper shot is also Kyle’s last sniper kill. We see him break down on the phone to his wife shortly afterwards, while enemy fire is raining hard upon the unit: ‘I’m ready to come home now,’ he says, ‘I’m ready to come home’. That final gunshot signifies something deeper in Kyle’s story. His military journey has come to an end and he realises it, for the first time, in that moment. With this in mind there’s little question why Eastwood wants to emphasise it.

Even so, the method of emphasis remains questionable and confused. Why did a director of Eastwood’s experience and proven calibre (Flags Of Our Fathers, Letters From Iwo Jima) reduce his technique to cliché? And a cliché that comes with so many connotations?

What do you think? What does the use of slow motion in American Sniper mean? And is it a mistake? Let me know in the comments…

Images: © 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., WV Films IV LLC and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC-U.S., Canada, Bahamas & Bermuda

Talking Points is a new series of posts asking questions about cinema.
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