I can’t help but feel that I’ve been too easy on Clint Eastwood as a director. Despite none of his films have even come close to reaching the heights of Unforgiven (one of the best films ever made), he has been riding a wave of passable films. Hell, I even enjoyed Jersey Boys. It’s not hard to see why though. Eastwood is the biggest living legend right now. His films have a certain “might as well see them” factor that is probably only matched by Woody Allen. This is why it doesn’t necessarily surprise me that there is a lot of public attention towards his latest film American Sniper, even before its many Oscar nominations have been announced. It’s based on the true story of celebrated war hero Chris Kyle, it stars Bradley Cooper who has been rising as a serious actor for the past few years and it had one hell of a trailer. This makes it even more disappointing having to say that American Sniper is kind of awful.
The film follows Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) as he begins his military service, performing several tours in Iraq, all while dealing with family life back home with his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller).
Before I get into why the film doesn’t work, I do want to credit the one thing that manages to shine in the film and that would be Bradley Cooper’s performance. He has been showing his range a lot more in recent years, and he has proven himself to be an actor worth taking seriously. In American Sniper, he gives it his all. His voice, physicality, demeanor is incredible to watch and it’s a very inspired turn from his part. Unfortunately, it’s left to him alone to provide the necessary nuance that the script and direction fails to supply. If it weren’t for his committed performance, I’d consider American Sniper to be a complete failure.
My knowledge on Chris Kyle is very limited. I know of him, and I’m aware that he wrote an autobiography that’s very popular which the film is based on. I’m just not aware of the details. So, I was hoping to watch American Sniper and learn more about the man behind the legend, who he was, what he stood for, what he dealt with before, during and after the war, and all that good stuff. I found myself very disappointed in how screenwriter Jason Hall adapts the story. By the way, the rest of the review will be under the assumption that you know what happens to Chris Kyle, so to avoid spoilers, you can skip to the final paragraph. The structure of the story felt too procedural to me. It takes a very matter-of-factly approach to Chris Kyle as a character. It’s basically the film equivalent of a Wikipedia summary, as it moves from one event in Chris Kyle’s life to another with very little substance to support the film. After the film finally gets Chris Kyle into Iraq, the film becomes very repetitive very quickly, going from action set piece to generic family drama scene to action set piece to generic family drama scene, rinse and repeat. It’s lacks a sense of escalation and makes film feel dramatically inert as a result.
As I said, I don’t have a lot of knowledge on Chris Kyle, but I have heard a lot of interesting things about him. And the things I hear come from varying extremes; with some saying how he’s an American hero to some saying he’s a complete and utter monster. The film seems to have very little opinion on Chris Kyle. It almost feels like he’s presented as a glorified figure, but then there are moments that question that glorification as well. The film doesn’t make its mind with what it wants to do. It doesn’t fully form a thematic through line to carry that heft, leaving the film oddly cold and empty. At its core, the film seems like it wants to be about how violence can impact a person, a theme explored beautifully in Unforgiven. However, here in American Sniper, the story is never willing to go as deep and as dark as the themes require. So, by the time we finally get to Chris Kyle actually dealing with his PTSD, the film is already starting to head into its final act. So, we don’t get much perspective or broader context to what Chris Kyle went through and how his (AGAIN, SPOILERS) untimely death factors in. I hate that the film doesn’t directly deal with his murder by a fellow PTSD victim because it essentially takes what should be the big emotional highpoint and thematic cap to the story and instead throws it into some text that plays before the credits roll. It’s as if the filmmakers were too afraid to answer the question of what it all means because they didn’t want offend their audience. It’s a baffling creative choice that mirrors my issues with The Imitation Game and Unbroken.
As far as Clint Eastwood’s direction goes, that to me is where the failures of the script culminate into a final blow against the film. As someone who’s seen all of Eastwood’s films, I’ve gotten used to his very laid-back style of directing. He’s very efficient, uses very few takes and his films are generally bland visually and lack any sense of energy or urgency. However, I’d say it generally works for him and the stories he tells, like I said, Unforgiven is one of the best films ever made. Eastwood is a talented and visionary director, but it’s only when a story calls for more than he’s willing to give is when a film will really plunder. In the case of American Sniper, this was a film that Clint Eastwood needed to be on point and focused, but instead he manages to be even lazier and somehow less energetic than his direction in Jersey Boys earlier this year. American Sniper contains some of the laziest and poor filmmaking choices I’ve seen in a long time. While the action scenes are passable, there is often very little tension, especially after the first few scenes occur and they get repetitive. The visuals he pulls off with his regular cinematographer Tom Stern is as boring as ever and there is never a sense that he’s even trying. There is a scene in the film, which I’m sure you’ve heard of already. Chris Kyle is handling his second child for the first time with his wife. From the moment the scene begins, you know something is off, and then you notice the baby’s oddly robotic finger movements while it is still in Sienna Miller’s arms. Then she passes it to Bradley Cooper who holds it as if it’s his first time handling it and is still processing how to present its weight because frankly it looks like he’s holding a plastic doll. It never moves and it never makes a noise; it just has this very odd presence that is so distracting that it takes you out of the moment and makes you focus on the baby and not the drama happening on screen. I can’t tell you what Cooper and Miller were talking about during that scene because my focus was on the bizarre looking baby. It perfectly culminates how the film fails to get you emotionally invested because of poor filmmaking choices. The only time I was genuinely moved was during the credits when you see real footage of people showing their support as they stand along a long highway stretch where Chris Kyles’ body was being taken to his funeral procession. Seeing all those people showing their support for someone they consider a hero was inspiring and emotional, it’s too bad the film never goes that far.
You know that one time in school when you had to do some project like a PowerPoint presentation or something like that, but you didn’t do it until the day before it was due? And it ends up coming out looking really plain, very basic and uninteresting? That is American Sniper. There’s talent everywhere, but aside from Bradley Cooper (and a solid supporting cast), no one seems to be willing to come to bat. Steven Spielberg was initially attached to direct American Sniper and he wanted to present more psychological conflict and he wanted to flesh out the enemy sniper (yes, there is an evil sniper that Chris Kyle goes after in the film, and the way it’s depicted in the story feels oddly counterintuitive to its themes) to explore the more gray areas of the story. Budget constraints by Warner Brothers prevented that from happening so Spielberg eventually dropped out. It’s a shame because the final product we got was a poor film that wastes a standout performance from Bradley Cooper. As a character study, it fails to go into the mind of its main character. As a war film, it’s painfully generic, tedious and thematically confused. As a work of filmmaking from a Hollywood legend, it’s a huge and infuriating disappointment that is at best mediocre and unimpressive and at worst, a terrible, dramatically limp film that has no idea what it wants to say or do, yet manages to get six Oscar nominations. Chris Kyle, for better or for worse, is a figure that seems much more interesting than what American Sniper presented.