Cast: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller
Director: Clint Eastwood
Running Time: 2 hours 13 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
The year's most controversial picture by a large margin (sorry Rogen and Franco), as well as a colossal record-breaking financial success, Clint Eastwood's American Sniper is dividing audiences and critics along political lines. Wether or not the story of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL who did four tours in Iraq while amassing the most confirmed kills of any sniper in U.S. history is a bonafide jingoistic military requirement video or a nuanced take on the toil war has on the human psyche is debatable, but what cannot be questioned is the maelstrom of reductive interpretations the film has drawn in terms of it's political stance. Is American Sniper a worshipful celebration of government-sanctioned murder? A complex character study of a shell-shocked patriot reeling from the horrors of combat? A tribute to the soldiers who have fought and given their lives in order to protect us from foreign assailants? The answers to these questions aren't quite as clear as those on both sides of the political aisle would have you believe, but this ultimately may be missing the point. What's been lost in the heated debates surrounding American Sniper; from those saying it's akin to Nazi propaganda to others claiming it's a testament to a brave American hero, is whether or not the film is actually any good.
The answer to that question is much clearer, as evidenced by Eastwood's complete disinterest in anything other than the combat scenes. Truthfully, since the story is being relayed through the perspective of Kyle, it makes sense that anyone with brown skin is portrayed as either a blood-thirsty warlord with a drill or a cunning housewife handing her young child a RPG, but there's something disturbing about Eastwood's often heightened direction during the Iraq sequences. To that end, there's even a Syrian sniper matching scopes with Kyle; framed in dark shadows with no interior life whatsoever, who comes across like a silly action movie device beamed in from a completely different universe. While there are some effective moments involving Kyle hiding inside abandoned buildings while contemplating when or when not to fire, the majority of the conflict is rendered by Eastwood in a way that feels inauthentic, including a laughably bad climatic moment involving a slow-motion CGI bullet.
These issues, however, feel minor in comparison to the home-life scenes, which veer from mediocre to downright embarrassing. There's a bit of backstory here; from Kyle's Texas upbringing hunting with his dad, beating up a bully picking on his brother, and horse-riding rodeo montages, but this is handled clumsily. Kyle is a familiar composite of All-American conservative values and violence-prone masculinity, and in terms of nailing this particular type of personality, Bradley Cooper hits all the right notes. But the actual mechanism behind him joining the military; (the planes flying into the World Trade Center on 911), is portrayed with all the subtlety of a sniper round to the face; playing like a predictable flag-waving moment rather than something instructively terrifying. Even if the real-life Chris Kyle saw what happened on 911 through such a simple-minded prism of black and white, allowing it to play out that way in the film is problematic, if not dangerously naive. There's more clunkiness to follow; including a scene in a bar where Kyle meets Taya (Sienna Miller), a hard-drinking women who characterizes SEALS as self-obsessed assholes, and who, because that's the way these things go, eventually marries him. Her criticisms of his line of work are interesting, but Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall (adapting Chris Kyle's memoir American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History), refuse to illuminate this particular through-line. The moral quandary involving carrying out one's duty by taking human life from a distance is thought-provoking and disturbing, but American Sniper deflates any sense of tension since Kyle was a man who never once doubted his righteous mission.
What this means is that even though Cooper brings shades of nuance to the role; including the film's best scene where he calls home from a bar after returning stateside, the film never achieves anything resembling dramatic conflict or psychological depth. This is compounded by Sienna Miller's poorly written part as the long-suffering wife, who is given scenes that not even a great thespian could pull off, which Miller is not. Moments where she asked to fall on her knees weeping into the phone as Kyle dodges gunfire on the other line are bafflingly bad, and if Miller's overbearing theatrics weren't uncomfortable enough, we are also expected to believe the war simply stops so that two estranged lovers can exchange heartfelt monologues. Such scenes, even if they did happen similarly in real life, are handled by Eastwood almost like an afterthought. It seems, rather obviously, that Mr. Eastwood isn't interest in genuine emotions and simply wishes to get back to the action. As the film wears on, one gets the impression that Taya isn't a fully dimensional character, but rather a manipulative screenwriting device in order to show just how heroic and (possibly) troubled Mr. Kyle was. Meanwhile, the scenes after the war where he battles PTSD and sits around looking dazed at his TV are banal, with little insight into the man's frazzled mental state other than a few meetings with a therapist and one where a fellow soldier tells his young son that his dad's a hero. These beats are so obvious and the way Eastwood chooses to stage them so unimaginative, that the film completely blows what could have been a fascinating dissection of the cost of cyclical violence.
American Sniper ends with a somber coda that hammers home what Eastwood had been alluding to all along; that Chris Kyle, despite his many character flaws and knack for self-mythologizing, was an American hero deserving of honor. While the film overall seems hesitant to announce such a message outright other than in fits and starts, the ending makes it clear that American Sniper is going for an emotional gut-punch that no true patriotic American can resist. It's just too bad that the film itself, when all is said and done, isn't really worth all the fuss.