Review: American Sniper

Consider this list of words.

Hustle. Beauty. Mary. Pie. Wedding. Reunion. Splendor. Psycho. Gangster. Gigolo. President. Muscle. Yakuza. Buffalo. Samurai. Gothic. Gun. Dreamz. Virgin. Loser. Ninja. Outlaws. Werewolf In London. Werewolf In Paris. History X.

And now Sniper. Before we get into the meat of this film, can I make a humble request that studios and screenwriters alike get a little more creative with their titles. This patriotic prefix is getting a little repetitive. I mean, is someone out there collecting these films?

In fairness some of the above wear their monikers with more national identity than others, either to critique or celebrate. It is which side of this fence they fall that has cast Clint Eastwood’s latest in curious question. The workaholic octogenarian has gone to great pains in the past to portray war with fairness, going so far as to represent both sides of a battle in his 2006 two-hander Flags Of Our Fathers and the superior Letters From Iwo Jima. That his work has slowly and sadly fallen off since then has been a real shame. His decade-long ‘purple patch’ that included the likes of Million Dollar Baby and Mystic River marked him as one of America’s most dependable filmmakers. His formal style and contemplative approach earning him another generation of devotees following his former gun-toting movie star days.

This late-career wobble itself calls American Sniper into question. After last year’s dour, already-forgotten Jersey Boys and the muted responses to the likes of Invictus and J. Edgar, is his latest – the true story of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle – the film to bring his name back into its former repute?

The answer to both questions is a little muddled. Arriving on the heels of a trailer that suggests a taut nail-biting war film in the same vein as The Hurt LockerAmerican Sniper instead finds Eastwood attempting to balance such nail-biting thrills with his more usual contemplative approach. The film effectively seesaws between the two, making for a dappled and uneven experience that extends to its clouded morality.

It opens with the tough, edge-of-the-seat scenario portrayed in the trailer; Kyle (a beefed-up Bradley Cooper) in Iraq, atop a building with his rifle, has seconds to decide whether a woman and child on a rubble-strewn street are passersby or potential enemy combatants. Eastwood leaves the issue unresolved as we then flashback to cliff notes from Kyle’s upbringing; his first hunting expedition with his father; defending his brother on the playground; discovering a former girlfriend cheating on him. With these snippets we are to quickly piece together the measure of the man. Devout Christian. Patriot. A ‘sheepdog’ as his father would have it.  We eventually plunge back into the action that opened the film, but the tension has been literally ripped apart. But then, this isn’t The Hurt Locker. It doesn’t intend to be.

In the midst of all this Kyle meets and marries Taya (Sienna Miller). When he leaves for his first tour she is expecting their first child. In writing this review I’ve already had to refer to imdb to check Miller’s character name, which hints at her rather thankless role here. Taya is the wife at home, and rarely more. Eastwood stages his Iraqi combat scenes with confidence and dexterity. Kyle’s brief trips back home, however, feel less rigorously managed. And while Taya grows concerned with the effect Kyle’s extended service is having on him, Eastwood’s film feels as reticent to dwell on it as Kyle himself. Any PTSD acknowledged is quickly swept back under the carpet.

The to-shoot-or-not-to-shoot questioning that frames the first act hints at a larger investigation into the morality of the Iraq war that never particularly surfaces. As things progress a more didactic approach is taken; the Iraqis become little more than targets on the range, and in turn American Sniper joins the ranks of modern films that feel awkwardly indebted to video games; each subsequent tour that Kyle embarks on is just the next level on Call Of Duty. By the end, any question has been comprehensively quelled; killing the bad guy is all that matters, and the movie’s final moments (which move to documentary footage) offer a gala of stars and stripes. It’s hard not to find it all jingoistic.

But then it’s worth remembering that, like The Wolf Of Wall Street, this is not told from a detached perspective. Scorsese didn’t show us the cost of Jordan Belfort’s actions because they weren’t his concern. Similarly, this is Kyle’s story and his viewpoint is ours. Cooper is in virtually every scene here. He gives a solid performance, one that’s not at all showy. This doesn’t feel like Oscarbait – though the film has been dutifully handed a clutch of nominations. Yet his denial of both the larger questions posed by the war and his own psychological fallout render American Sniper a little mute. By the end its so-much due-diligence portraying Kyle’s Kyle (the book the film is based on was co-authored by him) and little more.

So it’s a half-victory on all fronts. The moral meat has been shied away from, and as for Eastwood, American Sniper has flashes of the old dog, but not necessarily all of the bite. There are some impressive set-pieces here (a gigantic sandstorm in particular), but as awards season asks us to cast our eyes back over the past year, there are more accomplished and confident pictures than this one. Here’s hoping that Eastwood’s aim improves next time.

Score:  2.5

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