American Sniper (2014)
Dir: Clint Eastwood
Based on the ostensibly true story of the deadliest American sniper in history, Clint Eastwood’s latest film proves to be another above-average entry in the burgeoning War On Terror genre (after last year’s similarly-themed Lone Survivor). A considerably bulked-up Bradley Cooper stars as Chris Kyle, a sniper so deadly he earned both the title “Legend” from his U.S. comrades and a six-figure bounty on his head from jihadist foes. Sienna Miller co-stars as Kyle’s loyal wife Taya in a career-invigorating turn that should – despite being another prototypical loyal wife role (like in Foxcatcher) – signal larger things to come. A truncated conclusion and sometimes simplistic moral compass can’t dull the intensity of well-staged and classically shot battle scenes that are interspersed with Kyle’s attempts at coming home and shaking off the horrors of war.
American Sniper opens with pastoral scenes depicting Kyle’s childhood in rural Texas that seem right out of a Norman Rockwell painting . His father teaches him not only to shoot, but to be strong and defend the weak. He urges young Kyle to be a “sheepdog” in his analogy – to protect the sheep from the wolves. It’s a heavy-handed bit of symbolism that informs the movie’s moral code, showing a forceful father figure mixed with American pride to be Kyle’s unifying drives (and not, as his opponents might attest, bloodlust). Grown up and looking for purpose, Kyle fails at two goals: becoming a cowboy and taming the town floozy. With few options left, he joins the Navy SEALs and encounters gruelling training and typically abusive drill instructors in scenes that seem mostly plausible and lay the groundwork for the naturalism and veracity of the military sequences.
It’s around this time that Kyle meets-cute with the ebullient Taya at a local bar. American Sniper spends some token time on the romance (and there is chemistry present) but the film really kicks into high gear when 9/11 catalyzes Kyle’s will and he’s called into action. Eastwood has, until this point, modulated the tone and told a steady if somewhat unremarkable life story. It’s in Iraq that Kyle’s legend as a sniper grows and Eastwood’s workmanlike tale springs to life as a gripping procedural. Battle scenes are coherent and focused, with the geography and stakes always clear. Whether it’s Kyle making a split-second decision on whether a mother and her young son are mortal threats or duelling a deadly enemy sniper over multiple tours of duty, the Iraq scenes are engaging and tense. There’s some questioning of tactics as well and musings on the morality of war (most poignantly in a letter read by a dead soldier’s mother at his funeral), but for the most part American Sniper is content to show Chris Kyle doing his job exceedingly well – a job which just happens to be shooting people in the head.
Cooper is solid as Kyle, both in physical form and acting ability. He sports a thick Texan accent and is virtually unrecognizable from the smarmy douchbag roles that were previously his stock-in-trade. Kyle leaps to life in battle, alert and focused, but when he returns home he has trouble readjusting. His hat worn low over his eyes and his mind still trained on the horrors or war, he’s a man that clearly has PTSD but can’t admit it to himself or anyone else. These scenes are heart-wrenching at times (when not being upstaged by a fake baby), and provide a sobering counterpoint to the disturbing but still pulse-pounding action. That action comes to a head in a bravura climax that takes place amidst a looming sandstorm and recalls Black Hawk Down in its escalating chaos and insurmountable odds. A modern touch is the circling drone providing a mechanical bird’s eye view – a fitting symbol for technology’s increasing presence on the battlefield and the surveillance state that is modern life.
For those that know the end of Chris Kyle’s story (and I’m guessing there are many as it garnered national news attention), there’s a mounting sense of dread about the inevitable conclusion. And while there are some clues as to Kyle’s ultimate fate (“Why do you spend time with all us veterans when you got a loving family at home?”), Eastwood opts to elide those final moments of Kyle’s life and instead ends the film abruptly, cutting to a title card followed by actual footage of a memorial. It could be intended as a gesture of respect but comes off as the movie not knowing how to engage with this final act of shocking violence (not unlike another recent biopic, *cough* The Imitation Game *cough*). Eastwood (and screenwriter Jason Hall working from Kyle’s book) have been threading the needle well to this point and had a chance to draw more pathos and understanding from the tragic circumstances, but instead chose to blindly lionize Kyle.
The choice doesn’t negate what’s come before but it leaves the audience with emotional whiplash, feeding them real-life footage to elicit emotion but doing it so blatantly as to come off as insincere (unlike another recent example). The crux of the drama lies in showing that war changes young men and can inure them to violence and leave them broken. American Sniper has more of a redemptive arc (that feels like a rushed denouement) but it does an admirable job most of the time, simply wobbling at the end. It’s been said that there’s no such thing as an anti-war movie; that all movies inherently glorify war by their nature. Despite general excellence in craft and construction, American Sniper proves that trope to be true by focusing on the adrenaline rush of courage under fire and giving short shrift to the aftermath.