In his second cinematic outing of 2014 director Clint Eastwood tells the story of Navy Seal Chris Kyle. The most lethal sniper in American history, with one hundred and sixty confirmed kills. A pretty amazing stat, considering modern warfare is getting less and less personalized. However, “American Sniper”(based on the memoir by Kyle, Scott McEwen and James Defelcie) attempts to be both pro war and anti war. A patriotic combat film displaying Kyle’s military exploits as well as a somber post combat film about him having to readjust to normal society between tours. It’s a great story yet Eastwood’s film rarely escalates to such heights. It’s competently made but also underwhelming; the screenplay by James Hall often resorts to cliché and heavy-handed storytelling.
After starting in medias res, the film flashes back to briefly guide us through Kyle’s early life, including his decision to join the Seals. While I can see the intention with these scenes they-- for the most part--feel unnecessary. I don’t think I needed a scene showing a young Kyle hunting bucks with his dad to illustrate an early interest in marksmanship, something that can be easily seen on the battlefield. Even worse I certainly didn’t need Kyle’s father at the dinner table talking about how there are three kinds of people in the world: sheep, wolves and sheep dogs (protectors). And how Kyle is going to grow up to be the third option. Again, something else that can be shown on the battlefield. These scenes feel too obvious and heavy-handed. In general, the movie has a tendency to talk down to the audience. The only moments that do seem necessary are Kyle’s sudden decision to join the army—after hearing about U.S. Embassies getting blown up—and the meeting of his wife Taya Renae (Sienna Miller). However, since they’re preceded by four or five other superfluous scenes, Eastwood has to rush through without giving them enough time to breathe.
“American Sniper” is best when it focuses on Kyle’s (Bradley Cooper) military accomplishments in Iraq and more specifically when it gets into his head as a sniper. As a sniper you’re put into a position of extreme omnipotence. Being perched on a building high above you can see basically everything going on therefore the safety of your teammates rests heavily on your shoulders. An even heavier burden to carry is deciding who lives and who dies on the opposing side. Is that military-aged male reporting troop movement or calling a friend? Or even worse, do you kill that Iraqi child walking towards a troop convoy carrying a grenade? It’s a tremendous amount of responsibility and stress and the picture coveys all of this in a fairly tense and exciting manner.
The rest of the combat sequences—the ones not involving sniping-- while occasionally thrilling, feel relatively standard and routine. Watching them you’re reminded of the combat scenes in better modern war movies like Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down” and Peter Berg’s “Lone Survivor,” from last year. Eastwood’s picture rarely grabs you the way those movies did. During “Lone Survivor” there were times I was practically hiding under my seat because I was so uncomfortable, whereas in “American Sniper” I barely cringed. On top of that, Kyle’s military buddies remain one-dimensional. Making it difficult for me to care too much about them when tragedy strikes.
The conflicts that take place on the homeland between Kyle and Taya are even less compelling. Miller does the best she can but her character is sort of hung out to dry. In addition to being saddled with some of the worst, most cliché lines of dialogue--“when you’re here, its like you’re not here!”—she’s stuck being the wet blanket wife at home with the kids. Now, I’m not saying being the wife of a service man isn’t difficult but Eastwood and Hall don’t give Taya enough dimensions. About fifty percent of her role is sobbing or yelling at Kyle. As for Kyle’s two kids, they’re just treated as props; there to add more surface-level emotions and stakes to Kyle’s situation. I realize the movie isn’t called “American Sniper and his Family” but if you’re going to incorporate the family aspect into a war picture they need to hold more of a presence.
To his credit, Cooper is actually very good. Convincingly portraying a man who’s torn between his country and his family. A man who loves the thrill of combat even when it starts to take a toll on his psyche and affect his home life. Cooper’s handsome but likable everyman sensibilities fit Kyle perfectly and he wisely underplays the character. Having read the book, I know that Kyle wasn’t a showboat but instead modest when it came to his military accomplishments. In a scene near the end of the movie when Kyle is faced with his impressive kill record he isn’t fazed by it. It can be difficult to play a humble warrior but overall Cooper’s performance feels genuine and is easily the film’s strongest asset. That being said, even Cooper is sometimes hindered by the screenplay’s more heavy-handed and propagandistic qualities. At times Kyle will break into some pro America diatribe about the military conflict and constantly refers to the Iraqis as “savages.” Again, I know Kyle was very patriotic but in the movie these moments feel tacked on.
I wish I could say I was disappointed by “American Sniper,” but to be honest I haven’t come to expect much from Eastwood these days. I admire that the eighty four year old director/actor continues to make movies and while none of his recent efforts—“Jersey Boys,” “J Edgar,” “Invictus,”—have been flat out bad there just hasn’t been a lot of fire and passion in them either. “American Sniper” is skillfully made but it’s hardly ever remarkable. Like the rest of Eastwood’s filmography of late “Sniper” goes through the motions.