2014, R, 132 mins.
2014, R, 132 mins.
Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle / Sienna Miller as Taya Renae Kyle / Jake McDorman as Ryan Job / Luke Grimes as Marc Lee / Kyle Gallner as Winston / Keir O'Donnell as Jeff Kyle
Directed by Clint Eastwood / Written by Jason Dean Hall
There's an absolutely fascinating psychological story to tell at the core of
AMERICAN SNIPER, but director Clint Eastwood seems to spend too much time
in his own film celebrating his subject without really probing its
complex depths. This is not
the first time that the acclaimed 83-year-old director has tackled the
military genre (see FLAGS OF OUR
FATHERS and LETTERS FROM
IWO JIMA), but his new biographical war film sort of stumbles when
it comes to thoroughly exploring its story and main character, not to
mention that AMERICAN SNIPER, more often than not, seems dramatically
conventional, thematically shallow, and suffers from a large identity
crisis in terms of what kind of film it’s ultimately trying to be.
Kyle’s story certainly deserves to be told, just not with the relatively
conservative and banal approach that the typically disciplined and assured
Eastwood employs here. Based
on the book AMERICAN SNIPER: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF THE MOST LETHAL
SNIPER IN U.S. MILITARY HISTORY, AMERICAN SNIPER chronicles Kyle’s
upbringing as a patriotic Texan that wanted to be a cowboy and rodeo man
before 9/11 and the call of duty to serve his country became his main
focus in life. He went on
to serve in four tours in the Iraq War and received many commendations for
heroism. He was also a trained killer that reached iconic stature in both
the minds of his comrades and enemies.
All in all, Kyle was credited with 160 confirmed kills.
Certainly, this man accomplished a significant amount for his
country, but at what ultimate emotional and psychological price?
By the end of AMERICAN SNIPER we grow to learn very little about
Kyle, what made him really decide to serve, and what made him tick, beyond
the broad strokes that Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Dean Hall paint here.
SNIPER opens sensationally, though, which is largely attributed to how
Eastwood dependably crafts action sequences with clarity and precision
using his low-key and understated aesthetic.
It’s March of 2003 and Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is stationed near
Nasiriya, Iraq and is positioned in a sniper’s nest overlooking an abandoned
street, serving as overwatch for his squad. Kyle notices some peculiar activity with a woman and a small
child: they appear to be holding a grenade, which looks like it will be
used against the approaching U.S. forces.
Kyle is then given the “okay” to take whatever course of action
he deems fit. Opening
AMERICAN SNIPER like this is solid for grounding the troubling quandaries that
men like Kyle faced daily in the line of work.
In many ways, his life as a sniper was plagued with "damned if ya
do, damned if ya don't” moral and ethical conundrums.
here the film rickshaws back to the past and into a more generic and routine biopic mode, where we see a series of flashbacks from Kyle’s
childhood up until the point when he decides to enlist at the ripe old age
of 30. We get cookie cutter
family scenes of Kyle as a boy being given stern lessons from his
protective – and eerily pro-violence – father that seems to ground
Kyle’s upbringing on a foundation of doing what’s necessary to protect
what’s most important in the world.
From here we gets scenes of Kyle attempting to make a name for
himself as a rodeo star, his meeting of his future wife Taya (a shockingly
good Sienna Miller), and eventually his enlistment and training as a
sharpshooter. When Kyle finally sees action he begins to realize the severity of the threat from
Islamic extremists, and his skills, patience, and fortitude are put though
several arduous tests while dealing with a wife at home that sees her
husband disassociating himself from reality with every new day that he
serves in the military.
is a fine movie craftsman, to be sure, and AMERICAN SNIPER has a gritty
veracity that makes its sequences feel riveting and tangible while
relaying the chaos that ensues in combat when American forces are fighting
a truly unpredictable enemy. Eastwood has been known for his stylistic modesty, which
serves the war sequences in AMERICAN SNIPER rather well in terms of
grounding them in a stark immediacy.
Some individually moments – like the aforementioned introductory
sequence – are gut-wrenchingly suspenseful.
There’s a subplot involving Kyle squaring off, so to speak, with
a rival Iraqi sniper that seems to be his equal (one of the film’s many
dramatic liberties with established facts) that pays off handsomely in one
dynamic and breathlessly staged set piece.
SNIPER is rare film on Eastwood’s radar where the star upstages the
director, and Bradley Cooper – bulked up, enunciating with a credible
Texas drawl, and having a deeply internalized intensity – is
pitch-perfectly cast as the decorated Iraqi war veteran.
Cooper is a fine actor for evoking Kyle as a man whose silences
speak volumes about his inner turmoil and anxieties.
Always looking the part of a plausible thirtysomething soldier,
Cooper does a finer job – beyond nailing the physicality of his role –
at relaying the whirlwind of complex emotions that torments Kyle
throughout: His staunch and steadfast patriotism, his equally dedicated
loyalty to his wife and family, his stern and steely eyed focus on the
job, and ultimately the paranoia that consumes him as he and his fellow
soldiers try to make sense out of a war that appears to have no end. Cooper is the dramatic epicenter of AMERICAN SNIPER and the
glue that keeps the film together throughout; he’s positively
odd, then, when Cooper’s bravura performance seems more deeply layered
and complex than the film he resides in.
Much like UNBROKEN (another recent war film), we really learn nothing about Kyle throughout AMERICAN
SNIPER beyond little bullet points about his life and times.
The film also hits many perfunctory and been-there-done-that story
beats from countless other war films - tense encounters with the enemy,
the emotional war on the home front, domestic crisis, paralyzing guilt
over a soldier’s yearn to take up the call to arms while hurting the
foundation of his family ties, etc..
All of this has been done before, which leaves AMERICAN SNIPER
feeling more routine on a narrative level than it should have.
There’s no doubt that the marital scenes between Cooper and
Miller are exemplarily acted, but they don’t push any new ground for
this genre, nor do they really probe beyond the standard dramatic
blueprint of it either.
what is AMERICAN SNIPER really trying to say about Chris Kyle and the war
he served in? Eastwood and
Hall seem to (a) be indifferent about it altogether or (b) lose focus along
the journey of this film to say something profound.
Eastwood pays rightful respect to Kyle’s service record and
military accomplishments without really digging deep beneath the surface
of his fractured psyche. That,
and is AMERICAN SNIPER a patriotic celebration of Kyle’s astounding
military achievements or a sobering portrait of his inner loneliness and
isolation on the home front after war or a pro-war propaganda film that
justifies America’s involvement in Iraq or an incisive anti-war film
that questions American interests in the Middle East?
Eastwood’s film seems confused in this regard…and the man
has been known to shake up established genres before (his Oscar winning
UNFORGIVEN was a deconstructivist take on the nature of heroism and
violence in the genre as a whole), which leaves AMERICAN SNIPER feeling
all the more disapprovingly context-free.
One of Eastwood’s most damning missteps, though, was in his overall handling of the tragic circumstances of what happened to Kyle after the war (he was brutally murdered on a shooting range in Texas in 2013). Instead of intrepidly dealing with and investigating Kyle’s hellishly ironic end, Eastwood sheepishly delegates it to an end credits title card. What a shame. There’s a more compellingly penetrating story here that points towards larger polarizing issues with pockets of American society and their response to enlisted men that AMERICAN SNIPER awkwardly sidesteps altogether. Eastwood’s technical mastery of the war scenes in the film sort of masks its lack of a thoughtful and enthralling discourse on Kyle's life and the war he fought in itself. There have been many masterful war films in our post-9/11 climate that have audaciously dealt with American conflicts in the Middle East (THE HURT LOCKER and ZERO DARK THIRTY), but Eastwood’s overall approach here feels antiquated and old fashioned by comparison.
MY CTV REVIEW: