A superb performance by Bradley Cooper anchors Clint Eastwood's harrowing and thoughtful dramatization of the life of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle.
Justin Chang, Chief Film Critic, Variety, NOVEMBER 11, 2014
A skillful, straightforward combat picture gradually develops into something more complex and ruminative in Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper,” an account of the Iraq War as observed through the rifle sights of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, whose four tours of duty cemented his standing as the deadliest marksman in U.S. military history. Hard-wiring the viewer into Kyle’s battle-scarred psyche thanks to an excellent performance from a bulked-up Bradley Cooper, this harrowing and intimate character study offers fairly blunt insights into the physical and psychological toll exacted on the front lines, yet strikes even its familiar notes with a sobering clarity that finds the 84-year-old filmmaker in very fine form. Depressingly relevant in the wake of recent headlines, Warners’ Dec. 25 release should drum up enough grown-up audience interest to work as a serious-minded alternative to more typical holiday fare, and looks to extend its critical and commercial reach well into next year.
Although Steven Spielberg was set to direct before exiting the project last summer (just a few months after Kyle’s death in Texas at the age of 38), “American Sniper” turns out to be very much in Eastwood’s wheelhouse, emerging as arguably the director’s strongest, most sustained effort in the eight years since his WWII double-header of “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters From Iwo Jima.” As was clear in those films and this one, few directors share Eastwood’s confidence with large-scale action, much less his inclination to investigate the brutality of what he shows us — to acknowledge both the pointlessness and the necessity of violence while searching for more honest, ambiguous definitions of heroism than those to which we’re accustomed. In these respects and more, Kyle — who earned the nickname “Legend” from his fellow troops, achieved a staggering record of 160 confirmed kills, and became one of the most coveted targets of the Iraqi insurgency — makes for a uniquely fascinating and ultimately tragic case study.
We first meet Kyle (Cooper) as he’s hunched over a rooftop overlooking a blown-out structure in Fallujah, Iraq, taking deadly aim at a local woman and her young son walking some distance away; only Kyle’s specific vantage allows him to see that they’re preparing to lob a grenade at nearby Marines. The fraught situation and its queasy-making stakes thus introduced, the film abruptly flashes back some 30-odd years to Kyle’s Texas childhood, establishing him as a skilled shooter at a young age (played by Cole Konis) as well as a brave protector to his younger brother, Jeff (Luke Sunshine). After a brief rodeo career, Cooper’s Kyle joins the ranks of the Navy SEALs, whose brutal training regimen — including the muddy beachfront endurance tests of the dreaded Hell Week — is depicted more extensively here than they were in last year’s military-memoir adaptation “Lone Survivor.”
As scripted by Jason Hall (paring down Kyle’s 2012 autobiography, written with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice), these flashbacks form the film’s most conventional stretch, including a tartly humorous scene at a bar where Kyle charms his way past the defenses of the beautiful Taya (Sienna Miller), despite her early claim that she’d never date one of those “arrogant, self-centered pricks” who call themselves SEALs. Yet Kyle belies that description, revealing himself as a God-fearing, red-blooded American galvanized into fighting, as so many were, by the shock of 9/11 and his determination to avenge his country. Indeed, the ink is barely dry on his and Taya’s marriage license when Kyle gets shipped off to Fallujah, where he and his comrades are well served by his exceptional abilities as a sniper.
It’s here that the story catches up with that tense mother-and-child setup, this time not sparing us the gruesome, inevitable aftermath. Describing his actions to a fellow soldier, Kyle breathes, “That was evil like I had never seen before” — a statement that lingers meaningfully as we watch him racking up kill after kill, efficiently dispatching the male Iraqi insurgents he spies surreptitiously arming themselves in a back alley, or driving a car bomb in the direction of American soldiers. In each of these life-or-death scenarios, Kyle must use what little time he has to swiftly assess whether his targets indeed pose an immediately actionable threat, lest he face recriminations from lawyers, liberals and other members of the Blame America First crowd (a point the book drives home far more vehemently than the film).
Not surprisingly, Eastwood avoids wading into the ideological murk of the situation and sticks tightly to Kyle’s p.o.v., yielding an almost purely experiential view of the conflict in which none of the other soldiers becomes more than a two-dimensional sketch, dates and locations are rarely identified, and any larger geopolitical context has been deliberately elided. (Some details have clearly been fudged; Kyle says he’s 30 when he enlists, but he was actually in his mid-20s.) Yet the achievement of “American Sniper” is the way it subtly undermines and expands its protagonist’s initially gung-ho worldview, as Eastwood deftly teases out any number of logistical and ethical complications: Kyle’s frustration at always having to engage from a distance rather than on the ground with his comrades; the sometimes difficult collaboration between the SEALs and the less well-trained Marines, especially when they begin the dangerous task of clearing out Iraqi houses; and above all, the near-impossibility of figuring out whom to trust in an environment where everyone is presumed hostile.
This becomes especially crucial when Kyle and company receive orders to take down the Al Qaeda terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his vicious second-in-command, the Butcher (Mido Hamada), named in part for his imaginative use of power drills. The hunt for the Butcher — and, eventually, a Syrian-born sniper named Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), whose lethal precision rivals Kyle’s own — leads the troops into a series of breathless skirmishes, from a horrific Al Qaeda attack on the family of an Iraqi sheikh (Navid Negahban) to a nighttime ambush that develops as a result of Kyle’s extraordinary perceptiveness in a seemingly benign situation. Working as usual with d.p. Tom Stern and editors Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach, Eastwood handles these ambitious setpieces with an unfussy professionalism worthy of his subject, the camera maintaining a gritty, ground-level feel (with the exception of a few crane shots demanded by the complex staging of the film’s climactic shootout) while switching deftly among a range of perspectives that nonetheless maintain a strong continuity of action.
Less adroitly handled are the regular cutaways to Taya and their two children back in Texas, providing necessary but over-emphatic reminders that Kyle’s loved ones are paying dearly for his military service. Taya seems to have a bad habit of catching her husband on the phone at those unfortunate moments when mortar and shrapnel are exploding around him (which is understandably often). When he’s home on leave, he’s painfully distant, reluctant to talk about his experiences and barely able to function, which is Taya’s cue to spout some gratingly obvious dialogue of the “Even when you’re here, you’re not here” variety. What works in these scenes, however, is the disquieting sense that Kyle’s normal life has shifted into the war zone, and that his time with his family is passing him by in fast, jarring blips; we see his kids at only brief intervals here, and the rate at which they grow up must be as startling for him as it is for us.
In its revelation of character through action, its concern with procedure rather than politics, and its focus on an exceptionally gifted U.S. soldier struggling to make sense of his small yet essential place in a war he only partly understands, Eastwood’s picture can’t help but recall “The Hurt Locker,” and if it’s ultimately a more earnest and prosaic, less formally daring affair than Kathryn Bigelow’s film, it nevertheless emerges as one of the few dramatic treatments of the U.S.-Iraq conflict that can stand in its company. And just as “The Hurt Locker” found revelatory depths in Jeremy Renner, so “American Sniper” hinges on Cooper’s restrained yet deeply expressive lead performance, allowing many of the drama’s unspoken implications to be read plainly in the actor’s increasingly war-ravaged face.
Cooper, who packed on 40 pounds for the role, is superb here; full of spirit and down-home charm early on, he seems to slip thereafter into a sort of private agony that only those who have truly served their country can know. (A late sequence shot in an impenetrable sandstorm provides the most literal possible metaphor for his own personal fog of war.) Perhaps the film’s most humanizing touch is its willingness to show Kyle not just reacting but thinking, attempting to grasp ideas that have thus far eluded him, whether he’s spending time with veterans who have lost limbs and worse on the battlefield; coming to grips with the difference between him and his reluctant-Marine brother (Keir O’Donnell); or shrugging awkwardly when someone calls him a “hero,” as if the word were a particularly ill-fitting sweater.
While the circumstances of Kyle’s death add a note of tragic urgency to the film’s matter-of-fact examination of post-traumatic stress disorder, the moment itself is left offscreen, a decision that feels consistent with the scrupulous restraint that characterizes the production as a whole. The visual and editorial choices discreetly reinforce the clash between the hell of modern warfare (the color all but drained away from Stern’s images) and the purgatory of middle-class American life, accentuated by a sound mix that allows us to register the hard pop of every gunshot. While Eastwood’s musical compositions have sometimes been hit-or-miss, he’s never written a subtler score than the one here, providing faint, almost imperceptible accompaniment; in a film that encourages us to reflect as well as feel, it’s a choice that speaks volumes.
Reviewed at Warner Bros. Studios, Burbank, Calif., Nov. 11, 2014. (In AFI Fest — Secret Screening.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 132 MIN.
A Warner Bros. release and presentation, in association with Village Roadshow Pictures, Ratpac-Dune Entertainment, of a Mad Chance, 22nd & Indiana, Malpaso production. Produced by Clint Eastwood, Robert Lorenz, Andrew Lazar, Bradley Cooper, Peter Morgan. Executive producers, Tim Moore, Jason Hall, Sheroum Kim, Steven Mnuchin, Bruce Berman.
Directed by Clint Eastwood. Screenplay, Jason Hall, based on the book "American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History" by Chris Kyle with Scott McEwen, Jim DeFelice. Camera (color, Panavision widescreen, Arri Alexa digital), Tom Stern; editors, Joel Cox, Gary D. Roach; production designers, James J. Murakami, Charisse Cardenas; art directors, Dean Wolcott, Harry Otto; set decorator, Gary Fettis; costume designer, Deborah Hopper; sound (Dolby Digital/Datasat), Walt Martin; sound designer, Tom Ozanich; supervising sound editors, Alan Robert Murray, Bub Asman; re-recording mixers, John Reitz, Gregg Rudloff; special effects supervisor, Steven Riley; special effects coordinator, Brendon O'Dell; stunt coordinators, Jeff Habberstad, Trevor Habberstad; visual effects supervisor, Michael Owens; visual effects, MPC, Pacific Title & Art Studio, Sony Pictures Imageworks, Image Engine, Lola; assistant director, David M. Bernstein; second unit director, Robert Lorenz; second unit camera, Barry Idoine; casting, Geoffrey Miclat.
Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Luke Grimes, Jake McDorman, Cory Hardrict, Kevin Lacz, Navid Negahban, Keir O'Donnell, Cole Konis, Luke Sunshine, Mido Hamada, Sammy Sheik. (English, Arabic dialogue).
How Clint Eastwood’s ‘American Sniper’ Aims True But Misses the Mark
November 12th, 2014 by Germain Lussier
Director Clint Eastwood has great aspirations for American Sniper. First and foremost, he hopes to make a movie paying tribute to the most deadly sniper in the history of the United States. That’s the late Chris Kyle, played by Bradley Cooper. He also hopes to show Kyle not as only a heroic solider, but a complex man confident in his actions and concerned about of their results. The film paints a grim picture of post-traumatic stress disorder and what it does to our veterans, especially in regards to their families. Finally, there’s also a drive to keep things exciting, so there are many gun battles in the deserts of Iraq.
Yes, American Sniper is an incredibly ambitious film with many moving parts. All of those parts work in certain instances, but only on rare occasions do they all come together at once. The disconnection makes the film fall just short of those great aspirations.
American Sniper had its World Premiere on Veterans Day at AFI Fest presented by Audi
The Trailer Tells the Story
Much of what works and doesn't about American Sniper is in the very first scene. It’s the trailer scene. That tense moment where Chris Kyle (Cooper) has to decide, on his own, whether or not a woman and child need to die. The tension is palpable and just at the moment of truth, the film cuts. For the next 45 minutes we see Chris Kyle as a boy, then a man. Eventually we meet Chris Kyle, the solider. Cooper has a steadfast likeablity in these scenes and it’s a good set up to get us ready for everything that follows. Still, it’s a long detour to eventually get back to that great scene.
A Legend Is Born and Family Is Everything
Once the film gets back to that opening, it moves on with Kyle’s time as a Navy SEAL sniper. Very quickly, he develops a reputation as “The Legend,” a man wanted by the enemy and adored by all soldiers. Despite all the violence and carnage, Kyle takes to this role well, developing a close relationship with many of his fellow soldiers. When he goes home, however, we begin to see the cracks in that version of Kyle we met in the first act. War has changed him. It seems, in fact, that he’s more at home at the war. Cooper gets better as the film goes along, playing Kyle right in the increasingly large divide between deadly killer and loving husband.
However, for a while the film forgets that Kyle wife’s Taya, played by Sienna Miller, even exists. It’s just kind of a tempered action war movie. Finally, there’s a scene where Taya and Chris talk on the phone and all hell breaks loose, fusing these two stories together once again. In moments like this one, Eastwood shows the full spectrum of Kyle’s plight. His soldiers need him but so does his family. That conflict becomes what the movie is about for the second half.
Many Great Scenes, Little Cohesion
Even when the film isn't fulfilling the full promise of its potential, Eastwood’s approach makes for compelling drama. A scene back home where Kyle is recognized is drenched in meaning. Every time Kyle goes back to Iraq for another tour – something guilt drives him to do again and again – the action gets more intense and effective as the personnel losses continue to mount. Several scenes involving the birth of his children clearly display that this man is heroic and caring, but also unable to reconcile the horrors he’s lived with a regular life.
There’s also the fact while there are a handful of compelling sniper scenes, mostly at the beginning and end of the film, the majority of American Sniper doesn’t show Kyle as a sniper. He’s a fearless leader on the hunt for some key Al Qaeda assets, but he does this from the ground, not the rooftops. This makes the unique premise set up at the beginning of the film into something a bit more recognizable.
American Sniper works, but never works perfectly. There are moments and scenes where the scope of Eastwood’s vision comes into focus, but for the most part it is comprised of many good elements that don’t quite fit together. There’s no doubt the film is a worthy tribute to Chris Kyle and represents some of the best work of Bradley Cooper’s career. It’s merely an above-average effort from Eastwood.
Film rating: 7 out of 10
Bradley Cooper captures the sad, short life of the most prolific sniper in U.S. military history
'American Sniper': AFI Fest Review, 11/11/2014 by Todd McCarthy
A taut, vivid and sad account of the brief life of the most accomplished marksman in American military annals, American Sniper feels very much like a companion piece — in subject, theme and quality — to The Hurt Locker. Starring a beefed-up and thoroughly Texanized Bradley Cooper as we've never seen him before, Clint Eastwood's second film of 2014 is his best in a number of years, as it infuses an ostensibly gung-ho and patriotic story with an underlying pain and melancholy of a sort that echoes the director's other works about the wages of violence. Unlike The Hurt Locker, however, this Warner Bros. Christmas release should enjoy a muscular box-office career based on the extraordinary popularity of its source book by the late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, Cooper's star status and its “God, country, family” aspects that will draw that part of the public that doesn't often go to the movies.
The gun — along with its significance to the United States, past and present — has been Eastwood's most frequent co-star since the beginning of his career and has played a major role in most of his best films, from the Westerns and the Dirty Harrys to the war dramas. As the title suggests, a gun — or, more precisely, an extremely high-powered rifle — shares the screen with Cooper here, although it is not at all fetishized in the manner that weapons are in the book.
Initiated by screenwriter Jason Hall in conjunction with Kyle while the latter was still alive and before the publication of the book Kyle wrote with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice, the film is surprisingly different from the book in its focus and feel. The tome takes a sort of checklist approach to Kyle's life, especially his military career, and rarely dramatizes events in a visceral or exciting way. By contrast, the script tends to emphasize major hazardous episodes in each of the soldier's four tours of duty, which are staged with the requisite intensity and are interrupted by brief respites that illustrate Kyle's increasingly detached relationship with his wife and family.
There's real snap to the expository first 20 minutes that establishes Kyle's character as the son of a religious father who stressed the ever-threatening presence of evil, the virtues of aggression and fighting, and the supremacy of the hunt. The opening stretch also features a highlight reel of brutal Navy SEAL training (including the unadvertised activity of having darts thrown into one's naked back while drunk) and creates a warm impression of Kyle's boozy, teasing courtship with barroom pickup Taya (Sienna Miller).
Then it's Wham!, to Fallujah, where Kyle's mettle as a sniper is severely tested by his first challenge: taking out what appears to be a mother and son intent on blowing up a group of U.S. soldiers with a large grenade. So unerring is Kyle's aim and ability to spot ripe candidates for killing that he very quickly becomes commonly referred to as “The Legend.” When possible targets become scarce, Kyle joins the men assigned to the arduous task of clearing houses door-to-door in hopes of finding a despicable character called “The Butcher,” who, when seen in action, fully lives up to his nickname.
The urban environment in which much of the Iraq War was fought is evoked here with a pungent sense of the dust, smoke, filth and detritus of combat, along with the confusion and uncertainty that must have prevailed much of the time (exteriors were shot in Rabat, Morocco, as well as on an extensive town set). As shown here, there was no telling who or what might be behind any door, perched on any roof or behind the wheel of any vehicle. Kyle's first order of business as a sniper is to make the all-important decision of whether a potential target is a combatant or a civilian; he can be hauled off to face charges if he's wrong. But once he gets them in his sights, he, with almost unerring accuracy, pops them with one shot.
A bit disappointingly, there's no real discussion of what distinguishes Kyle from the rest, nor is the man's love for what he does emphasized to the extent that it is in the book. The politics of the war are completely off the table here, but there's never any question that Kyle and his relatively undifferentiated buddies are in Iraq on a mission they believe in because, as our sniper puts it, “There's evil here.”
After a quick visit to San Diego on the occasion of the birth of his and Taya's first child, Kyle's second tour is entirely devoted to the elimination of The Butcher. Brief but grisly torture marks this rough interlude, which numbs Kyle perhaps more than he realizes.
When he next returns home, Taya discharges a full round of on-the-nose complaints, such as “Even when you're here, you're not here” and “If you think this war isn't changing you, you're wrong.” While it at first appears that the home front difficulties between Kyle and Taya will receive something close to equal weight with the combat, they progressively become shortchanged to the point that Kyle's visits seem like obligatory, increasingly tense pit stops rather than occasions to really explore the extent of the soldier's psycho-emotional rearrangement and his wife's burden.
Feeling the compulsion to return, Kyle has a rougher time of it on his third and fourth tours of duty. The fighting has gotten nastier, Sadr City is a non-negotiable nightmare and the enemy now has a sniper nearly as talented as Kyle. Here, too, the film could have used a bit more detail, just a short scene or two in which the Legend indulges in a little shop talk, instructs a newcomer, explains how he does it.
After an intense final gun battle descends into absolute chaos when enveloped by a massive dust storm (which visually summons up memories of the tsunami scene in Eastwood's 2010 feature Hereafter), Kyle announces that he's had enough. When all is said and done, he has spent about a thousand days in Iraq and recorded more than 160 official kills, although the actual figure was probably significantly higher.
Eastwood handles the tragic ending with a tact underlined with irony, creepiness and a sense of loss that echoes any number of his previous films. He might have gone deeper into the ways the war infected his subject and the struggles he faced after his final homecoming, but whatever the script ignores Cooper goes a long way toward filling in. His physical transformation — bull neck, puffier face, cowboy gait, thick Texas country accent — is one thing. And his skill with jokey banter serves him well in his early scenes with Miller and some of the guys. But nothing the actor has done before suggests the dramatic assuredness he brings to his way of detailing Kyle's self-control, confidence, coolness, genuine concern for his comrades-in-arms, compulsion to serve his country and ultimate realization that enough is enough, even of the thing he loves most, which is war.
Dark-haired and looking markedly different than in most of her previous films, Miller is best in the early stretch and seems a bit cheated by the one-dimensionality of her brief later scenes. Physically, the film is first-rate. Brighter than most of Eastwood's films, it benefits from mobile and intently focused cinematography by Tom Stern, highly realistic production design by James J. Murakami and Charisse Cardenas, propulsive editing from Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach, and a very spare music track; the sound of bullets and explosions says it all here.
War Plays Out Like a Video Game in Clint Eastwood's Navy SEAL Biopic
By Inkoo Kang on November 11, 2014
“American Sniper” is an uncomplicated portrait of a man denied complexity and depth. Played by a pinched, marble-mouthed Bradley Cooper, the late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle is laureled for his patriotism, his 160 kills (the most in U.S. history), and his roles as a husband and father.
Director Clint Eastwood‘s focus on Kyle is so tight that no other character, including wife Taya (Sienna Miller), comes through as a person, and the scope so narrow that the film engages only superficially with the many moral issues surrounding the Iraq War.
In its best scenes, “Sniper” illustrates how Kyle's removal from humanity made him such an excellent marksman. The Texan prefers the idea of people to actual people and has no qualms about his dismayingly provincial us-versus-them worldview. He regularly calls both Iraqi insurgents and civilians “savages” — an epithet Eastwood doesn't necessarily endorse, but doesn't repudiate, either, since not a single one of his Middle Eastern characters are endowed with basic motivation, let alone humanity.
“Sniper” follows its cowboy-turned-SEAL protagonist from the moment he enlists in the military – after the U.S. embassy attacks in East Africa by Osama bin Laden — through his four tours of duty. Much of the running time is simply one raid or gunfight after another, with little sense of the political or military context or the timeline of the war. There are no scenes exploring the drudgery of the tedium of war, only more missions.
The result is not unlike watching a suspenseful but highly repetitive video game, especially since nearly every Iraqi is seen through Kyle's highly perched rifle scope. The appearance of each Iraqi character incites the same algorithm: shoot or don't shoot, shoot now or shoot later. (As the only character resembling a human being, Kyle is the only military member who ever feels queasy about shooting and killing so many people.)
Eventually, a narrative emerges: the SEALs search for a brutal enforcer, nicknamed “The Butcher” (Mido Hamada), linked to al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. But the structure is too episodic and the narrative too disjointed for the search process to yield any of the joys of the procedural. At least the hunt for “The Butcher” ends in a gorgeous sandstorm sequence that's one of the most visually arresting battle scenes in recent memory.
As redundant as the action scenes become, they're far preferable to the dreary domestic conversations, which rehearse only the most rote troubles afflicting military families. And bordering on offensive is the film's assertion that some soldiers can overcome PTSD in a matter of months through good acts and willpower.
Eastwood is enough of a skilled craftsman that he doesn't entirely neuter Kyle into the perfect role model. As rendered here, the Navy SEAL is full of blustery patriotism and hyper-masculinity, badly beating the guy who sleeps with his girlfriend and earnestly declaring America to be “the greatest country on earth.” (Reality check: people all around the world believe this about their own homelands.)
In a flashback, Kyle's father (Ben Reed) anoints him as “blessed with the gift of aggression.” And one of the film's most out-there scenes finds a cheerful Kyle aiming a revolver at a charmed Taya, playfully demanding that she remove her underwear at gunpoint while their children play just a few feet away.
Such scenes will be read as problematic by the soft-hearted (like myself) and admirable (or cathartic or sexy) by others. What makes “American Sniper” such a deeply unsatisfying film, though, is that Eastwood recuses himself by and large from delivering a judgment. Perhaps the ambiguity regarding Kyle's unexamined nationalism and chest-thumping manliness merely reflects the dividedness of the country on social mores, but, like the ubiquitous Punisher skulls on Kyle's troops’ tanks, it's not clear whether it's meant to be disappointingly juvenile or fearsomely awesome.
If Eastwood's feelings toward Kyle's core values are hazy, though, his veneration for the soldier couldn't be clearer. It's too bad, then, that cinematic hero worship so often takes the same familiar forms. Writing on this Veterans Day, I wish “American Sniper” had afforded me the opportunity to salute real men and women in uniform, not just a movie trope.
Bradley Cooper shines but Eastwood misses the mark with stilted 'American Sniper'This is minor-key for the legendary film-maker at best By Drew McWeeny
Clint Eastwood is an enormously capable filmmaker who, like any filmmaker who works non-stop, is capable of turning out films that are polished and considered and carefully calibrated, and equally capable of turning out nearly inert movies that are forgettable and barely register. What I find most interesting about his career is the way it took him a while to win critics over to his side, but once he did, he's been almost untouchable ever since. Any other filmmaker coming off of "Jersey Boys" would have been greeted on their next film with open skepticism, but it's a real sign of just how esteemed Eastwood is that he could release that film to near-universal indifference at the start of the summer, and yet his next film can be greeted like an event that sends seismic waves through the already-crowded Oscar season.
One of the things that I tend to avoid in my writing about film is weighing in on awards prospects and the way one film stacks up against another, but an event like Tuesday night's back-to-back screenings at the Egyptian create the direct sense of a horse race. First up was a work-in-progress screening of the sure-looked-finished-to-me "Selma," and then the not-terribly-secret "secret screening" was Eastwood's latest, "American Sniper," and both films were heavily attended by the people who spend their time handicapping the various awards ahead. While I'm still not going to wade into that conversation, it was interesting to see just how nakedly the AFI Fest has now become part of the strategic thinking about when and how to show things.
Overall, "American Sniper" is a solidly-staged but unexceptional picture, filled with overly familiar dramatic situations and a surprisingly blindered view of the world around its central character. While Bradley Cooper does a strong job of inhabiting the role of Chris Kyle, the real-life Navy SEAL whose story is told by the film, Jason Hall's script fails to crack why this story is being told to us.
Sure, Kyle is recognized as the most successful sniper in recorded military history, and he did immeasurable good in terms of protecting human life in the battlefield. I can't begin to imagine the way the people whose lives intersected with his feel about him, and the most moving thing in the film comes at the very end when we see real news footage of the funeral procession for Kyle. The sheer size of the mass of humanity who showed up to pay their respects speaks to the quality of Kyle's character. Cooper does a good job of trying to illustrate the inner life of someone who sounds, on the surface, like a recruitment poster. Kyle is a rodeo rider in his early 20s and eventually realizes that he's got no focus in his life. It's quietly hilarious how the beginning of this film plays like the straight-faced version of "Stripes," with Kyle eventually realizing that he might as well join the military since nothing else has worked out. He immediately decides he's going to be a Navy SEAL, and then jumps into a montage that would make Matt and Trey cackle.
Here's the thing… by the rules of Hollywood filmmaking, everything Clint Eastwood does here is right. I can see the flow chart that Jason Hall laid out that illustrated the way the film would chart the evolution of Kyle as a character, and the movie does everything "right," but there's not a second of it where I stopped thinking of it as anything but a movie, a formal exercise in turning the messy and honest real life of Chris Kyle, a real human being, into something stilted and predictable and safe. There are sequences in "American Sniper" that are staged well, and why wouldn't there be? At this point, Eastwood and his cinematographer Tom Stern have shot so many things and they have established such a shorthand that when it comes to staging a scene, they know what they're doing. That's a given. There are a number of scenes here where we see Chris Kyle in position, having to make the call on whether or not to drop the hammer on someone, and that's the entire moral hinge of the film. That's the choice I'm not equipped to make or judge, the moment that is faced by anyone who is ever called to kill in combat. It's different for snipers, because they are at a remove. They have a chance to think about what they're doing. They have a chance to make a call about what they're seeing. And there are several moments in "American Sniper" that starkly illustrate what it is that is faced every day by combat troops. It is not lost on me that I spent the end of my Veterans Day sitting in a theater watching these sequences unfold.
But speaking of "American Sniper" as a film, I'm struck by how routine it is, how by the numbers and predictable. That is not a judgment of Chris Kyle the person, but rather the film that has been spun from the real person. It drives me slightly crazy in a case like this because you aren't allowed to talk about the film without it somehow meaning something about the true story. When I wrote about "Lone Survivor" last year, or when I wrote about "Black Hawk Down," I got angry e-mail from people who got mad at me because of the real people involved in the stories that inspired those films. If you are of the mind that I am not allowed to criticize the movie because of whatever the real Chris Kyle did, then you probably shouldn't even be reading at this point.
But if you're interested in how "American Sniper" works as a film, I'd say the biggest problem it has is that Clint Eastwood has already dealt with this exact material thematically, and he's done it much better. "Unforgiven," after all, looks at the toll violence takes on the human soul and the way someone becoming a legend can make them a target and it does so with an elegance and a sense of both humor and humanity that is not present in "American Sniper." There is one new idea in "Sniper" that I like, dealing with the way Kyle eventually tried to find peace once he came back Stateside. Andrew Niccol just made an entire film about the struggle to acclimate to family life, and Eastwood deals with that throughout this movie. The problem isn't the idea, but the expression of it. Things are written so on the nose that we're not allowed to feel anything. We're force-fed it, but there's not a moment in "American Sniper" that breathes like life. There was a real Chris Kyle, yes, and the things he did line up in some way with the things we see the movie version of Chris Kyle do, but the movie version is a symbol Writ Large, not a person. Same with his wife Taya (Sienna Miller), who he meets in a bar and then marries at the exact second that he is called overseas.
The character arc that Chris follows in the film has to do with his ability to do what has to be done. Once he decides to become a sniper, he has to learn to be able to do anything if he thinks it will save the life of an American soldier. There's a scene that is used as framework for the first half of the movie, an opening scene that stops at a crucial moment, only to loop back around halfway into the film. This time, we see exactly what Chris does, and it becomes a defining moment for him. He takes that moment and moves forward, hardened, ready to be the weapon that his government trained him to be. In-between, it's like Chris barely exists, and again, Cooper's performance work is so strong that it almost makes up for a script that I feel fails him. He's doing more work to define who Chris is than the script, and that's true for pretty much the entire film.
I don't feel good about recommending a film like this based on the action sequences, because you're not dealing with fantasy here. You're not dealing with superheroics. You're dealing with the real world, where someone put a bullet in someone else, and celebrating how that went down feels weird to me. There's a moment in this film, near the end, where something happens, someone's brains are splashed across a wall, and the crowd went wild, and while I get that when you're watching fiction, we were watching something tonight that professes to be a true-life story. And if that's true, and if this is true, then I was asked in the theater tonight to cheer for the death of a real person, and that's a very strange moral line for any film to try to navigate.
One of the biggest problems with making a film that deals with recent history is that you don't have any perspective. We're far enough away from the events of 9/11 that we can now dispatch that as shorthand in a film like this with a scene of someone watching the Towers fall on TV, then move right into the impact, but we're not far enough away to really grapple with the role we've played in the region since. Eastwood's film doesn't paint a forgiving picture of the way the military works in Iraq in the film, but he's more concerned with the rotting effect of Chris's doubts than the moral certitude of them.
Eastwood's scores range from the overwrought ("Mystic River") to the charmingly light ("Grace Is Gone"), with "American Sniper" demonstrating a few new sonic tricks and a fairly unerring sense of whats right for this story. The film is put together with a very solid, workmanlike sense of craft, and while I thought the film felt much longer than the two hours or so that it runs, individual scenes are cut well enough. It's the same basic gang who work for Eastwood on everything, and it feels loose-limbed and relaxed. The problem is, there's no real urgency to anything. The stakes for Chris aren't clear. He's so hung up on combat, but for unexplained reasons, that when he keeps returning to combat, it's not terribly surprising or terribly upsetting. The fights are noisy, but they're dull, and if we're not covering any new moral or thematic ground, the least we could do is get some great combat footage. "American Sniper" doesn't even really do that, and while I think the film pays a certain kind of humorless tribute to Chris Kyle, I don't believe I know the real man any better now than I did before I saw the film.
"American Sniper" is minor-key Eastwood, a film that certainly does not offend, but that does not transcend, either. For people who want a perfunctory tribute to a man who seems to have lived an anything-but-perfunctory life, "American Sniper" should thrill, but for anyone looking to this as a film first, it is a flat, oddly stilted misfire.
Clint Eastwood's latest biopic is a fine tribute to an American hero...
By Karen M. Peterson on November 14, 2014
“I’m not a redneck, I’m from Texas,” Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) says to Taya (Sienna Miller), the woman who would become his wife. Thus sums up Kyle’s attitude about himself and who he is. That he would later be known as The Legend, with more than 160 confirmed enemy kills, never defines him in Clint Eastwood‘s latest effort, American Sniper.
One of, or apparently the deadliest sniper in American military history, Chris Kyle was a Texan, born and raised, with aspirations to be a cowboy in the rodeo. When the US Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya were bombed in 1998, Kyle heard the call to join the US Navy, trading in his cowboy boots for combat boots, and ultimately going on to join the Navy SEALs. It was in SEAL training that he met and married Taya. And then in the weeks following September 11th, Kyle’s unit was activated and sent on their first tour to Iraq.
It is during Kyle’s first tour that the film opens, before giving us his story in predictable flashback fashion. While his personal history is interesting, it isn’t particularly necessary to understand his motivation for joining the military in the late 90s. After all, the country was pretty military-minded in those days, and anyone deciding to enlist had pretty similar reasons. But flashback form it is, and thus Eastwood makes his greatest mistake with the film. Unfortunately, these sequences are plodding and sometimes tedious, although they do give Bradley Cooper the opportunity to introduce Chris Kyle as a charming Texas boy, the kind that no girl could resist. It’s easy to see why Taya falls for him and so quickly. Although the chemistry between Cooper and Miller is sadly lacking, giving the relationship a somewhat unbelievable and unsatisfying feeling.
Catching up to that tense opening scene, American Sniper finds better pacing and serious intensity. There were several times where I forgot to breathe because the tension was so palpable. Eastwood does a great job showing the realities of the war in Iraq, never delving into the politics of the war, but only showing what it was like for the troops on the ground, walking into dangerous situations on a daily basis.
It is during this first tour that Kyle begins to develop a reputation. Eventually he will be called The Legend, and there will be a price on his head. But Kyle always downplays the title, and Cooper is particularly effective in showing a blend of quiet humility and heroic bravado. Cooper’s performance is exceptional. We’ve seen brilliant performances from him before, most recently in Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, but he reaches a new level of excellence in this role, carrying the film on his broad shoulders, while also allowing his co-stars (notably Luke Grimes and Kyle Gallner) the opportunity to balance him out. While the film is all about Chris Kyle, Bradley Cooper never acts as though it’s all his show, and I applaud him for that.
In between tours, Kyle goes back home to his growing family, but he never seems to leave the war behind, having unfinished business in the form of a gifted Syrian sniper, Mustafa (Sammy Sheik). In these home scenes, the pacing slows, sometimes to the point of dragging. This is Eastwood’s second mistake. While there is definitely a need to relieve some of the tension in between Kyle’s four tours, these moments with his family don’t accomplish what they are intended to, and further showcase the awkward pairing between Cooper and Miller. Miller is certainly the weak link in this cast, having been chosen, presumably, for her resemblance to the real-life Taya Kyle. Some important moments do happen during these stateside moments, but they begin to feel redundant pretty quickly. In a film centered around war, you begin to crave the next tour. Perhaps this was why Chris Kyle kept wanting to go back.
And each time he does go back, the tension ramps up. As I said before, Eastwood does a great job of showing the realities of the war, and the ever-increasing tension is part of that reality. After all, as the number of soldier deaths in Iraq increases, so do the odds of becoming the next casualty. The war sequences are amazing. Writer Jason Dean Hall certainly did his research, proffering a script that allows us a glimpse into the psyche of the American soldier, and exploring the reasons that someone would choose to go back to the war again and again.
American Sniper isn’t a perfect film, but it is a very good tribute to an American hero. Chris Kyle’s is a story that should be known, and it is a story that is told well, despite its issues. Like Lone Survivor and The Hurt Locker before it, this is a film that deserves an audience.