Movie Review: American Sniper (2014)

bradley-cooper-american-sniper-600x400Though there’s plenty political framing, moral posturing, and opportunistic grandstanding on war there always seems to be a missing emphasis on the soldier’s experience, or rather an acknowledgment and understanding on what war means to a soldier, how it effects a soldier, and what can be done in the aftermath for a soldier. First-hand confessions and perspective heavy accounts give us some valuable lessons on the warfront experience, especially those that have lived modern warfare in all of its horrific circumstances, patriotic sentiments, or haunting regrets, whether it’s David Bellavia’s hauntingly detailed memoir House to House, Marcus Luttrell’s sad tale of survival resilience in Lone Survivor, or Chris Kyle’s autobiography American Sniper. Kyle was the deadliest sniper in U.S. history having clocked in 160 confirmed kills and 100 more probable kills in his four tours in Iraq and his extraordinary feats in war, as well as his veteran accomplishments at home, make him a remarkable man worthy of respectful exploration, heroic definition, and consideration for post-war reflection. Unfortunately the cinematic portrait that’s painted of Chris Kyle in Clint Eastwood’s latest misstep is an uncomplicated one that keeps its clear veneration for the soldier at a sniper’s length distance never approaching its potential depth on the wartime experience, the complex home front assimilation, or the themes on the effects of violence. There’s no denying Eastwood as an efficient craftsman in filmmaking, but it seems his lack of connection to his material has generated a slew of films that do a disservice to their artistic potential with Chris Kyle’s portrait being the latest victim to lazy, uninspired filmmaking. American Sniper could have been another fine examination of the soldier experience on the same level as Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker or even Sam Mendes’ Jarhead, but through Clint Eastwood’s detached and rigid direction and Jason Hall’s predictable and obtuse script we’re left with a man unexamined, an issue unexplored, and a film that is unimaginative. Chris Kyle’s story through cinema should have touted an artistry to exposing his subjective experience as a sniper, his deep seated torment of which American lives he didn’t save, and his arduous struggle to find some semblance of calm in his home front reality, but what we have is a superficial examination that is emotionally distant, morally vague, and unexceptionally routine.

Hackneyed, unoriginal, and safe aren’t necessarily words that should be used for a character study, especially one that focuses on a rather robustly patriotic and heroic human being, but what can you expect from actor turned occasional screenwriter Jason Hall whose template screenwriting usually suffers from shallow insight. From his vacuous celebration of excess instead of a critical deconstruction of Los Angeles’ hollowness in Spread to the completely cliché and convenient script of the tech-thriller Paranoia it’s no surprise that a basic screenwriter such as Hall can’t find the eloquence, the complexity, or the nuance in Chris Kyle’s story. Based on Kyle’s memoir that was co-written by Scott McEwan and Jim DeFelice, American Sniper covers a great deal of ground in the beginning to round out Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) from childhood indoctrination to hunting with his father, to the engrained sense of protection for his brother Jeff (Luke Sunshine), and a brief rodeo career that leads to an almost Stripes like decision to join the military. Though Hall’s outlined narrative makes sense in an educational screenwriting standpoint the actual outcome feels flimsy in detail and paints an incredibly simplistic human being with motivations that resemble the emotional depth of a Navy recruitment poster. After his time in boot camp and the experience of hell week, which is shown in just about as much detail as Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor yet without any sense of brotherhood since Kyle is the only non-one dimensional character, the rest of the film unfolds as a continuous episodic deployment to home cycle without finding any character insight or wartime interest. Even the home front struggle is simplified into his wife Taya’s (Sienna Miller) gratingly obvious dialogue to underline the dramatic themes stating, “Even when you’re here you’re not here,” or “I just want my husband back.” American Sniper mishandles most of its potentially emotional content by treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a quick fix pamphlet thin issue, never ventures deep into Kyle’s wartime experience effects, and keeps this complex, heroic, and intriguing human being at a detached distance. Usually it takes a director with a specific insight on a character’s developing arc to find the broader themes contained within a script, but unfortunately Eastwood’s emotionally removed direction combined with this stilted character study script results in an awkward and insubstantial experience.

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Considering Eastwood has ventured the themes of how violence enraptures the human soul before with his masterpiece Unforgiven it’s rather surprising that he couldn’t find an emotional or thematic connection to the person that Chris Kyle was instead of keeping him on a reverence pedestal. Idolizing your subject can have its benefits but there needs to be a pronounced reason for doing so and there simply isn’t any palpable message or emotional experience here to grasp onto. It’s admirable that American Sniper avoids the obscure ideological debate on war, but if you aren’t going to make a judgment on the circumstances than the strict subjective character point of view needs to be enlightening in its own way, which Eastwood’s stilted direction doesn’t allow. The efficiency of an Eastwood set has been lauded for its budget savvy quickness, but it seems to be a storytelling disservice if Hereafter, J. Edgar, and now American Sniper are concerned (a scene with Bradley Cooper and an obvious rubber baby is especially lazy and awkwardly laughable). Even while working with his regular crew of cinematographer Tom Stern (Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Jersey Boys) and editors Joel Cox and Gary Roach (Jersey Boys, Letters from Iwo Jima, Gran Torino) there doesn’t seem to be an inspired use of visuals or an effective use of cutting to amplify the wartime effects and tension. Most of the sniper situations, which are rather limited for a movie that promises to explore that very subject, are handled with a simplistic video game-like detachment that showcases Kyle’s SEAL training to making the callous wartime decision of taking a life but never makes for a gripping watch. House to house clearings, sniper hunts, and the occasional battle sequence (most notably a sandstorm fight that has some minor arresting elements) are all part of this tedious wartime procedural that fits in the familiar attributes of a war film instead of actually being one. The problem with American Sniper isn’t its proposed ideas—violence affecting the soul or the rudimentary problem of how veterans can assimilate back into a seemingly normal existence back at home—but rather it’s the execution of those ideas, which is done with wooden expression, uninspired direction, and force-fed themes making its chosen actor to work even harder to fill that emotional void.

If there’s one element in American Sniper that attempts to make Chris Kyle a felt representation of a living, breathing human being it’s the dedicated performance of Bradley Cooper who blends restraint with deep expression to create a heroic spirit. Cooper’s physical transformation is one thing—having gained 40-pounds through brawn and most likely with equal measure beer—but his confidence is found mostly in his embodiment of Kyle’s patriotic sentiments and personal self-control that is demonstrated through a dramatic assuredness unlike anything he has tackled before. Certainly we’ve seen a growth in Cooper ever since he teamed up with David O. Russell in both Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, but those performances were still dependent on his known charm and likeable presence. Cooper’s Kyle is one of quiet reservation and internalized thinking, a man attempting to grasp the morals of his surroundings while also making sure he never hesitates in making the right decision as his performance often times fills in the script’s blatant gaps in character exploration. He manages to create an emotional presence on his plainspoken war ravaged face despite the film’s technical failure to heighten it as moments of PTSD are lazily handled in sound design execution and the visual restraint that the film erroneously touts fails to ignite adequate expression. Unfortunately that doesn’t apply to Sienna Miller who despite a cutesy flirtation bar scene with Cooper never transcends the one-dimensionality of the script’s depiction of Taya as her only goal is to make melodramatic proclamations towards her husband’s internal home struggle. And the one-dimensional nature of Kyle’s wife, his brother, and his fellow soldiers in arms is what does a drastic disservice to American Sniper as a whole because it diminishes Kyle’s motivations to save his American brethren and dilutes the emotionality of his home front isolation. Bradley Cooper’s inspired performance is the only aspect of the film worth latching onto because he tirelessly works to paint a sympathetic, damaged, and understood portrait of a soldier despite the script’s lacking qualities that utterly fail him in dramatic support.

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As the deeply tragic and slightly ironic ending unfolds in a pre-credits screed at the end of American Sniper the restrained use of real life footage of Kyle’s burial here in the states brings the entire disconnected affair to a flawed poetic conclusion. There’s a lost opportunity to highlight the violently affecting details of war as well as the issues of post-traumatic stress disorder, which are skimmed on their surface and never approach a lasting insight that can be carried away from its detached experience. Ultimately it feels as though Eastwood’s two take direction and relaxed craftsmanship results in an unfeeling portrait that while it highlights the respectful angle of Kyle as a soldier it never finds a deeper reason to why this story is being told. Because there’s an admirable disconnection from the political and moral ponderings on war what we’re left with is a character study, though a study of veneration rather than complexity where a use of subtly, character through action, and thoughtful representation isn’t utilized one bit. American Sniper never makes any insight on the wartime experience or the treatment of our veterans at home, but it also fails on a character level that becomes a routine, predictable, and safe examination of a man who lived an anything but routine, predictable, and safe life. Since we learn nothing of the complexities of Chris Kyle and also never get to ponder the haunting effects of war or the home front struggle to assimilate the ultimate end of Eastwood’s latest film is that of respectful hollowness.

Grade: C-

This film will be out in limited release Dec. 25th; Wide release Jan. 16th

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