American Sniper relies too much on the destination, and not the journey

It’s tough to decide whether American Sniper, the latest directorial effort from Hollywood legend Clint Eastwood, is a biopic or not.

On one hand, the film’s main subject – Chris Kyle, dubbed the deadliest sniper in US military history – has an unwavering presence. This is his show for roughly two hours, from the southern boy to the cowboy to the soldier.

On the other hand, Eastwood is ambiguous, almost epileptic, in how he conveys Kyle’s journey. There are clearly destinations that Kyle is supposed to arrive at in terms of how the war affects him, but more often than not while watching American Sniper, we arrive at those destinations without ever realizing we were on the journey in the first place.

American Sniper is essentially two films. One tells the story of Kyle the American, during his time at home between his four tours in Iraq. These parts of the film are clearly what got American Sniper nominated for the Best Picture Oscar last Thursday. Eastwood does an incredible job showing how Kyle’s time in Iraq affects his interaction and relationships, and there is a clear transformation from the always-smiling, somewhat naïve but dutiful Texan we saw at the beginning of the film, and the troubled character he becomes the more he experiences.

 

Chris Kyle becoming one with his weapon.
Chris Kyle becoming one with his weapon.

The tight, tense focus on Kyle’s inner conflict is by far the strongest aspect of the film. Eastwood has shown his effectiveness in conveying inner struggles before, most notably with his own role in 2008’s Gran Torino. Kyle’s world changes, and he deals with the all-too-common problem of never really returning from war. There is consistent attention to detail concerning Kyle’s morphing perspective at home. Although he stresses throughout the film that he is just a soldier doing his duty to his country, it’s the things he doesn’t say or do or visibly feel – things that we know pre-Navy Kyle would do – that is a fascination to experience.

In stark contrast, the majority of the film’s time spent in actual conflict in Iraq is mostly vastly underwhelming. We all know what to expect from war films. Gunfights. Death. Patriotic undercurrents. Actions so infuriatingly suspicious that sometimes we know what is really happening before the soldiers on the screen do. American Sniper presents all these in a manner that is simply all too familiar.

An exception to this weakness is when we get to see Kyle do what he does best as Kyle the Sniper. The few – two few – scenes where Kyle is providing overwatch for his comrades are as tightly filmed as the scope he is attached to, and a sequence involving his split-second decision involving an Iraqi child is both memorable and breathtaking. We are able to see what made Chris Kyle so deadly, and it’s incredibly entertaining.

Unfortunately, those scenes are too few and far between. Instead, Kyle spends the majority of his time on the ground in what soon becomes nothing more than monotonous Call of Duty action on the big screen. The film neglects to add any real levity to the majority of the film’s time in Iraq, save for an intense gunfight near the end.

The most disappointing aspect of the film’s time spent with conflict is how little it adds to the story. We are able to see the leader Kyle becomes – which, some say, is a historical inaccuracy – but it’s predictable in its point A to point B narrative. We never really see how the decisions and actions of Kyle the Sniper come around to affect Kyle the American. There are only two or three truly poignant moments during his time overseas when the audience can sympathize with the horrors Kyle experiences.

Bradley Cooper (American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook) is a revelation as Kyle. He officially sheds whatever skin he still had from The Hangover, emerging in his own right into an elite class of dramatic actor. He rightfully earns his third straight Best Actor nomination, completing a both unexpected and fascinating metamorphosis into an actor who ascends higher with each performance. The way he conveys Kyle’s ignorance to his own transformation – with his southern drawl, and lower jaw-jutting smile – is both believable and powerful. Cooper makes it easy to sympathize with Kyle and what he goes through.

One may wonder how the film would have been different if it utilized the majority of its running time focusing on Kyle’s struggle and the complex, confused character he turns into. Instead that storyline is forced to compromise and split time with the expendable,mundane, “hoo-ah” military spectacle so engrained in our culture that it doesn’t provide any surprises.

 

In a Nutshell

Bradley Cooper fully comes into his own, portraying a soldier who unknowingly realizes how the war is changing. But unlike another recent Iraqi war story, The Hurt Locker, American Sniper is inconsistent with its focus and direction, instead seemingly presenting two different films with their own motives, one vastly superior to the other. As a result, the movie ultimately ends as jarringly as Kyle’s life; there is so much more meant to be that simply isn’t.

 

6.5 / 10

 

 

 

 

American Sniper is rated R for strong and disturbing war violence, and language throughout including some sexual references.

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller

Directed by Clint Eastwood

2014

 

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