American Sniper (2015)
If you made it through my list of most anticipated films of the year list, you’ll notice that American Sniper is conspicuously absent. There’s a very good reason for that. I wasn’t looking forward to it. The only reason why I went to see American Sniper is because it’s pretty damn significant right now. It’s broken all sorts of box-office records and people are talking about it. A lot of people. As a film critic, this kind of large scale cultural talk is like friggin’ catnip and I wanted to stick my own personal oar in before the lake became nothing but oars.
American Sniper is based on the book of the same name, primarily written by Navy SEAL sharpshooter Chris Kyle, played by Bradley Cooper. During his various tours of Iraq, Kyle earned the nickname of “Legend” and became the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history. We follow Kyle as the film charts the trials and tribulations of both his military and civilian lives. The acting is on point. Bradley Cooper completely sells the idea of a man undergoing a slow motion mental carwreck. It’s a fantastically understated performance. Sienna Miller is also great and completely mercurial as his wife Taya. It was only when the credits rolled that I remembered she was in it, which surely is a compliment to any actor.
I will admit that I had a big ol’ preemptive hateboner for the film. I’ve always been averse to flag-waving jingoism and the deification of the military. Half the reviews I read were praising the film for being super-important and, on more than one occasion ,”life-changing”. The other half were shitbombing it for being another throbbing vein in America’s cultural erection for war. Knowing which way my political compass points, I knew I’d probably be in the latter camp. I also admit to kinda sorta maybe looking forward to giving an multiple Oscar nominee a few cheap rib kicks and sodding off, my contrarian ways intact. However, I remembered to not judge a film before I’ve seen it and tried to keep various other reviews out of my mind. Every film has the potential to be the new Citizen Kane. It’s just very, very unlikely.
The shitty thing is that my mind hasn’t been changed. I can see why the critical divide has been so massive. Part of me knows that Clint Eastwood is a smart director who has displayed more than enough understanding of irony and subtlety. The other part of me wants to base my reaction on what I felt the film brought to the table, which is an uncomfortably one-sided, chest-thumping slice of guns ‘n pecs. The real Chris Kyle is a controversial figure and I certainly don’t agree with some of the things he said and some of the passages in his book. Disclaimer: I’ve only read a few excerpts of his stuff, but unless he says something like “I’m going to go mental for the next few pages, see you in Chapter 14” beforehand, I think I’ve pretty much got the measure of what’s being said. Kyle is portrayed as a perfect (if slightly conflicted) war hero, which sticks in my craw. The whole thing is hugely binary and I kept wishing for additional shades of grey.
It’s clear that Eastwood is more interested in the forceful military patriotism than Kyle’s PTSD and his slow retreat into himself. Apart from Kyle jumping at noises and having a thousand yard stare, the film is completely disinterested in exploring the guy’s breakdown in any meaningful way. To me, that would be the most interesting and drama-heavy element of the story, but whatever, I’m not a director. The way it’s dealt with in the film feels very superficial and movie-ish. As I said though, this is only paid a bit of attention before we see more of Kyle’s many kills.
What troubled me most of all was how generic it felt. It felt like a subpar action film, complete with lazy dialogue and a lack of a actual point. Nearly every exchange between characters consisted of nail-on-the-head observations and hackneyed “let’s get these motherfuckers” type lines. Apart from a shitload of faceless locals, there are two main baddies- “The Butcher” who tortures kids with a power drill and has a collection of human body parts and an insurgent sniper who rivals Kyle in the sharpshooting department. Despite these being true accounts, again, it all feels very movie-like, which is a problem when one is striving for realism. It reminded me of the laughable Shooter, where Marky Mark plays a character unironically named Bob Lee Swagger. These are incredible events, yet my brain was switching into dumb Friday night rental mode. The film is feels rather mechanical too. It’s just of loop of Iraq, home, Iraq, home, Iraq, home. It’s like an assembly line. A particularly tedious one at that.
The performances of Cooper and Miller hold the film together, but everyone else fades into the background. I would struggle to name any characters outside of Kyle and Taya. I didn’t care when Kyle’s squad started diminishing in numbers because we hadn’t spent proper time with them. I didn’t know them from the next camoed grunt. I felt really disconnected from the whole experience. Speaking of disconnects, I’m not going to talk about the ending in great detail, despite being incredibly tempted to. Why Eastwood chose to not actually dramatise what happened is beyond me. Just baffling.
Despite how I’ve made it sound, American Sniper wasn’t completely without merit to me. It’s well shot and manages some tense sequences, especially one involving a dropped rocket launcher, but I just didn’t care. I was more focused on the story it wasn’t telling rather than the one it was. I can’t personally recommend it. Having said that, the film may hit you differently and judging by the polarising reviews, the reaction to it will totally vary from person to person.