A film review by Craig J. Koban January 22, 2015

AMERICAN SNIPER jj
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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.  

Chris 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. 

 

 

AMERICAN 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. 

From 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. 

Eastwood 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.  

AMERICAN 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 riveting.  

It’s 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.  

And 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:

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