American Sniper Review

Posted: January 23, 2015 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

american_sniper_ver2Written by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson

Clint Eastwood is undoubtedly a legend of the film industry. The man defined the image of a man for an entire generation, played some iconic characters, and shifted focus to become a great director. His early directorial career was a bit hit or miss. Some films, like The Outlaw Josey Wales and High Plains Drifter, are very strong, while efforts like Bronco Billy are pretty stale. Even after making the masterpiece Unforgiven, Eastwood continued to throughout some misfires. But then in the 2000s, the man really found his groove. In the span of just a few years, Eastwood directed modern classics Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, and Letters from Iwo Jima, along with flawed but ultimately strong works like Flags of Our Fathers and Gran Torino. However after that, the quality began to slip again. Eastwood began serving up disappointment after disappointment with 2014’s Jersey Boys seeming especially miscalculated. I started to think that maybe Eastwood’s time as one of the best was over. It made sense given his age and how much he’s already given to the industry. And then the trailer for American Sniper hit and I was stunned. Simple, tense, and very gripping, I immediately became excited. This seemed like it could be a return to form for a director who’s made some of my favourite films. I did keep my expectations in check, especially in light of some negative reviews, but I also had hope that American Sniper would soar.

American Sniper tells the true story of Chris Kyle (played here by Bradley Cooper), an American Navy SEAL who gained infamy as, “the most lethal sniper in U.S. history” during four tours of duty in Iraq in the early 2000s. As a young boy, Chris was instilled very traditional views of masculinity, God, and his country from his father. These views helped shape and define him. Chris always fancied himself as a type of cowboy and as a young man spent his days working as a rodeo cowboy, but yearns for something more. In the wake of the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings, Chris is inspired to fight for his country and joins the Navy SEALs and quickly finds himself deployed in Iraq following 9/11. As a sniper, Chris begins to build a body count and becomes known as a legend for his skills. However the war weighs heavy on the man and strains his relationship with his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller).

The film’s opens on the tense scene of Chris aiming his sights on a young boy armed with an explosive, the same scene teased in the trailer. However before we see if Chris takes the shot or not, Eastwood cuts to the Chris hunting as a child. After killing a deer, his father tells him that he, “has a gift”. It’s a very on the nose moment and it undercuts the tension of the scene, as well as the character study in general. In fact, the film’s earlier moments are some of the worst. Much of the material involving the father is cliché, over the top, and simplistic. These early scenes are meant to inform Chris as a character, but they’re so blunt and basic that it makes the character a lot less rich. Jason Hall’s script also feels the need to show Chris’ time in boot camp, despite the fact that nothing of significance happens and these scenes generally are ripe with boot camp clichés seen in other war films.

Thankfully, the film does pick up dramatically once Chris enters Iraq. This is in large part thanks to Bradley Cooper’s performance and the dramatic arc he experiences. Chris starts the film as an earnest and strong young man, eager to do his part not because he is violent, but because he wants to help people. However his experiences in war and the lives he’s taken begin to take a toll on the man. He becomes more withdrawn, distant, and embodies layers of confusion and hostility. Cooper does a great job capturing all of these emotions and on the whole builds a complete character. Sienna Miller has a prominent role as Chris’ wife Taya and while she doesn’t have much screen time, she does build an interesting character and delivers some very strong emotional beats.

Visually, the film is very strong without being showy. The production and locations all look very good. Eastwood knows how to film a scene and while the cinematography may not be stylish, it is very effective and efficient. Additionally, Eastwood stages a number of well-executed action sequences. Despite the flashback business, the tension of Chris aiming at the small boy is well-realized and in general the sniper kills carry a lot of weight to them. There are also a number of more frenetic shootouts which capture the chaos and dangers of war while still being exciting moments in and of themselves. A raid of a home and a climactic shoot-out amidst a sandstorm are certainly highlights. That said, Eastwood is beginning to show his age as a filmmaker. While most of the big moments are handled well, little details are bizarrely off. One scene involving an obviously fake baby is already becoming famous and for good reason; it looks terrible and it’s readily apparent from the start that the infant on screen is made of plastic. Additionally, some of the acting from either children or small parts is really bad and I’m kind of amazed those were the best takes. These may seem like little details, and largely they are, but they are noticeable enough to be distracting and they speak to a sloppiness that a filmmaker of Eastwood’s calibre should be well above.

Ultimately, American Sniper’s greatest failing comes from its lack of originality. Not only does the film hit a lot of the standard tropes we’ve come to expect from war movies, but the basic themes have all been analyzed in other films to a greater extent, including The Deer Hunter, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Black Hawk Down, Jarhead, and even Eastwood’s Western Unforgiven. However the greatest point of comparison is most certainly The Hurt Locker. Not only are both films centered on young men with specialty positions in the Iraq war, but both also explore the notion of war as an unshakeable, all consuming thing that can swallow people whole. Essentially both films have the same message at their core and not only did Kathryn Bigelow beat Eastwood to the punch, but she also did an overall better job. Part of the reason all of these films handle their own thematic content better than American Sniper is because Eastwood himself sees unwilling to go all the way in his rumination of the destructive capabilities of war to one’s humanity, as shown in his awkward handling of the film’s end. At a central moment in Chris Kyle’s life, the film cuts to text explaining what happens, then to stock footage full of patriotic American imagery. Such an ending seems fundamentally opposed to the rest of the film, which was more an exploration on what war can do to a man than a celebration of American patriotism. It’s unfortunate too since one can clearly see how the film could have really delivered a powerful message had the filmmakers been willing to go there.

So where does American Sniper sit in relation to Eastwood’s modern filmography? Well, this is probably the best film he’s made since Gran Torino, which probably says more about his recent output than it does this film. Indeed, American Sniper is not exactly the grand comeback I was hoping for, due to some really clumsy elements and a lack of originality. Having said that, I would still recommend American Sniper. The performances alone are enough to justify it being seen and there are a number of very well executed scenes. Additionally, while the themes aren’t very original and could use some refinement, there is still power to be found in its exploration from time to time. All told, it is a good film and it was refreshing to see Eastwood working at such form. Maybe someone will be able to get him a truly great script while this inspiration lasts and we may yet get another Eastwood classic. But for now, American Sniper will do.

B

Comments
  1. Dan O. says:

    Regardless as to whether or not Chris Kyle is an actual hero, the movie is still powerful in its view of PTSD, who else it affects, and how, if at all, it can be treated. Good review Dan.

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