Movie Review: American Sniper (2014)

I still say there's a lot of Jason Batemen from this angle
I still say there’s a lot of Jason Batemen from this angle
Every Clint Eastwood film these days is a must-see for me, and American Sniper — which happens to be his first Best Picture nomination since 2007’s Letters From Iwo Jima — is of course no different.

The film is less a war movie per se than a biopic of, or perhaps a tribute to, US war hero Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper), the most lethal sniper in American military history. Yes, that means Kyle has the most confirmed kills, a staggering number most people cannot even comprehend. He was so good, in fact, that US enemies put a sizable bounty on his head.

The verdict? American Sniper is not quite what I had expected. With Eastwood, you know you’re going to get a very steady, subtle hand, with an almost muted style that somehow generates volumes of emotion and tension. In the case of this film, however, the emotions felt a little suppressed — much like how Kyle suppressed his in real life — and I wonder if it was a deliberate decision on Eastwood’s part to take such an understated approach.

Given that Kyle spends a lot of time on the battlefield (he served four tours), it’s no surprise that American Sniper is one of Eastwood’s more action-packed efforts, relatively speaking, though audiences expecting an all-out thrill ride are likely to be disappointed. The action in American Sniper, though at times aptly tense, is sporadic and aimed more at character development than providing visceral shocks, but there should be enough to keep most war-hungry viewers satisfied.

The focus of the film is firmly on Kyle, who is depicted as an extremely polite and selfless soldier devoted to his job of protecting marines on the field. That devotion, however, comes at a steep price, namely his relationship with his wife (played by Sienna Miller), children, and his mental health. Kyle wasn’t allowed to discriminate between his targets, which forced him to do some very difficult things in the line of duty, and despite his insistence that he only cared about saving the lives of the marines, there’s no doubt that his actions bred a darkness that haunted him even after he returned home.

And that’s the heart of American Sniper — the struggle between duty to country and duty to loved ones, the irreversible damage to a person’s soul from being exposed to the horrors of war, and especially dealing with the terrible decisions one must make.

All of this is brought out by Bradley Cooper’s astounding portrayal of Kyle. He might not have resembled Kyle in terms of facial features (Chris Pratt comes to mind, and apparently he was Cooper’s choice too had he not been cast), but Cooper bulked up to at least provide the same flavour of masculine beefiness. More importantly, he manages to channel Kyle’s demons so audiences can at least attempt to comprehend his inner conflicts and turmoil. It’s a nuanced performance that doesn’t build Kyle up as some kind of saint, but simply gives you a good sense of who he is and what he stands for — from his no-nonsense “yes mam, no mam” demeanour to the his uncomfortable awkwardness in the face of praise and gratitude.

The rest of the supporting cast, including the likes of Luke Grimes, Kyle Gallner and Eric Close — is solid but intentionally low-key, which is necessary for the film to maintain its focus on the protagonist. Sienna Miller does what she has to, though I wish her character would have displayed more depth than the typical soldier’s wife anguishing for her husband’s return.

For those who don’t know about what happens to Kyle, I won’t spoil it by revealing the ending of the film, though I believe the quiet approach had a lot to do with certain restrictions imposed by the timing of the film’s release. At a hefty 134 minutes, it was probably a good time to wrap things up anyway.

I don’t necessarily agree with complaints that American Sniper is a pro-war movie that justifies US actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. As with most Hollywood productions, there are probably lots of factual inaccuracies, and the portrayal of Iraqis are admittedly simplified and weak, but the thing to remember is that this is a biopic told through Kyle’s eyes. For me, it’s important to separate Kyle’s story, regardless of whether his views are right of wrong, from any supposed underlying message being promoted by the film.

My problem with American Sniper lies more in the film’s relative lack of emotional impact and resonance. It’s as though the film stuck too close to Kyle, to the point where his own emotional detachment ended up getting passed on to us. Having seen the likes of Million Dollar Baby, Letters from Iwo Jima, Mystic River and even Changeling and Gran Torino, I know just how good Eastwood can be at tugging the heart strings and making me feel like I’ve been punched in the gut. As well made as the film is, there wasn’t nearly as much of that sort of brilliance in American Sniper — at least not executed as effectively — and as a result I found it less engrossing than some of Eastwood’s finest works.

Nonetheless, a slightly above-average Clint Eastwood film still classifies as a very good film by almost every other standard.

3.75 stars out of 5

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