American Sniper doesn’t waste time before going in for the kill, starting with a powerful scene that echoes loudly through Clint Eastwood’s best film in years. It sets up Navy Seal Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) as the master of all snipers, a conflicted but deadly hero that accumulated an amazing 160 confirmed kills (out of a probable 255). If you’ve seen the great trailer you already know how it starts. In an alarming turn, Kyle is faced with a horrifying choice I can’t imagine facing myself. He’s positioned in what’s called a sniper’s nest, a strategic position for sniping where he can lay down and take aim with the greatest level of accuracy. In an anonymous city in the Middle East, the long barrel of his sniper riffle stares down a woman, who quickly passes a Russian grenade to a young boy. In the child’s small hands, the size of the weapon is exaggerated. Beginning with an image this startling immediately sets the stakes (not for the war in the Middle East: Eastwood smartly treats the politics of the conflict with a passive eye), but for the personal, inner turmoil of the soldier.
Sniper isn’t about the literal battlefield so much as the one that rages inside the unlucky men and women that fight. Steven Spielberg was originally set to direct, but I’m thankful he didn’t. Only a figure as prolific, on screen and off, as Eastwood would know the appropriate choices for a story about heroes. In that way, it’s a companion piece to his best picture (and director) winning Unforgiven, although that’s a better film. Kyle’s superiors, friends, and fellow soldiers admire him to the point he’s given the ultimate title of all—a legend. His talent with firearms becomes the rare myth that’s true. After one of many tours overseas, Kyle encounters a wide-eyed man at a car repair shop. Kyle saved that man’s life, who proudly tells Kyle’s young son that his father is a war hero. Soldier, police officer, cowboy, Kyle is a real life Man with No Name, and in the same way Eastwood’s weathered cowboy Bill Munny in Unforgiven is a pensive mirror of his gun slinging characters, Kyle’s extraordinary number of kills (justified or not) leaves his soul battered.
Jason Hall’s screenplay easily could have fallen into the trap of last year’s Lone Survivor, with military men adored with hero worship, glory, and inner triumph. In two words, flag waving. In another, jingoism. Sniper has been falsely labeled as such, that it’s a patriotic white wash that bathes Kyle with honor. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. The first act of the film appropriately paints Kyle as the conservative Texan he was, brought up on honor-based values prevalent in the South. While they are heavy handed to the point of unintentional amusement (the people in my screening chuckled at how overly earnest Kyle can be), it sets up the hero-worship when he’s gaining fame. But in a pleasing turn, Kyle-worship darkly shifted from praise to intense questioning. A fellow Navy Seal begs him for answers he doesn’t have. What’s their purpose overseas? How can he believe in a god? These are simple questions that have complex inner consequences, and the screenplay surrounds Kyle with men that become mouthpieces for the conflict deep in his heart. Hall’s storytelling embodies the slippery uncertainty of a courtroom drama, and it’s our hero’s heart, country, religion, honor, heroism, and choices, that are on trial.
By daring to genuinely examine a man often labeled as a true American hero, the worth of big-talk heroism is called into question. As the film crosses the halfway point and nears the third act, Kyle displays obvious symptoms of PTSD. The structure of the script is divided between his intense tours in the Middle East, and it is there Sniper thrives on Eastwood’s proven talent at directing intense action, and his stays at home. His wife, played with surprising care by Sienna Miller, sharply accuses him of never coming back at all. It’s familiar trajectory for war dramas, dating back to The Deer Hunter and continuing as recently as The Hurt Locker, but that these scenes are messes of filmmaking allow them to take on an arresting dynamic. It’s true—the home scenes don’t work. They’re dramatically inert, heavy handed, and sometimes boring.
Shifting from the heart-pounding war sequences to awkward romance scenes between Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller (who plays his wife Taya) has the unmistakable sensation of accidentally hitting mute during a key moment of a great movie. You want to desperately hear what’s happening, to experience it. But you can’t. The volume isn’t just low—just silence. Failing at making the stateside scenes work is an objective flaw, but a subjective victory. In a stroke of random genius, we experience these scenes exactly like Chris Kyle. For us Sniper feels like its been turned on mute, but for Kyle, it’s his life. That this wasn’t planned doesn’t matter since it’s there in the film, and gives an unsuspecting tragedy that wore heavier and heavier as Sniper continued.
The best plotline has to do with a nemesis Syrian sniper fighting for the other side, an olympic medal winner that scales buildings like the video game character from Assassin’s Creed (an odd touch). As a strange note, he’s played by a distractingly handsome actor named Sammy Sheik. Regrettably, we don’t follow the sniper from his point of view. In Spielberg’s version, the sniper (that’s a narrative creation by Hall), would have had a boosted presence, and taking time away from Kyle’s exploits not only could have contextualized them with greater depth, but it could have given a more even-footed glimpse of the war. Letters from Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers shook hands as spiritual sequels from two sides of the globe, with one film following American vets, and the other with the Japanese. Keeping our focus on Kyle wears, not just from sheer lack of diversity (the cyclical tour-home-tour-home pattern bothers), but because the script doesn’t characterize him with enough depth to justify a 135 minute running time with its eyes set only on him.
Cooper’s award-worthy performance deepens the character tremendously, making him a credible figure to admire before feeling pity and sorrow. Often accused of playing LOUD characters, like his in The Hangover, The Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle, Cooper dials back his bravado antics to a soft boil, letting small physical details do most of the talking.
The problem, and it’s a big one, is the collective failure of American Sniper’s final fifteen minutes. The spectacular final set piece does what Eastwood had so far brilliantly avoided: glorifying Kyle’s talent to kill. Previously, he seems sickened and upset at the sheer loss of life. Here, it’s Hoo-rah. Worse yet, despite observing PTSD with care and often accuracy, the previous depth in the presentation of Kyle’s disorder is erased moment by moment as it trivializes his recovery as both easy and swift. The permeating awkwardness of the home scenes hits an obscene head, with clumsy filmmaking that minimizes Kyle to the great, perfect, amazing, fantastic man the film spent its first 120 minutes deconstructing. Seemingly determined to hammer every nail into the coffin of his movie, ham-fisted jingoistic platitudes start to consume the dialogue. It becomes increasingly clear that, ironically, sadly, our great hero of American Cinema, Clint Eastwood, lacked the balls to end his movie true to itself. He backtracks, reduces, and ignores the two hours worth of deep analysis on myth making, heroism, war, PTSD, and just simply the character of Chris Kyle. American Sniper stands as an often powerful, gripping, and tragic war film, if a flawed one–it’s Eastwood that’s disappointed me most, unable to live up to his own legend.
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