In the time between the announcement of the nominees for the 87th Academy Awards and…well now, American Sniper has become something of a controversial movie. Questions about Chris Kyle, the movie’s subject, and whether his record was exaggerated or whether he was racist have permeated the cultural space, so before we begin I’d like to address it…
But I’m not going to. My position here is as a movie critic, which means I critique movies. As a result, regardless of my opinions on the person, his record or the war he served in, I will be reviewing the movie strictly as a movie, and any issues I bring up with the metaphors or alterations to the source material will be brought up entirely because they cause problems for the movies. Clear? Clear.
The plot is a heavily fictionalized biopic about Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), a US Sniper who racked up an impressive series of kills and rescues while serving in Iraq, eventually being named the most deadly sniper in US army history. The film follows him from joining the Navy SEALs in the aftermath of 1998 Embassy Bombings, through all 4 of his tours in Iraq, all the way to his retirement where he assisted veterans with PTSD.
Regardless of what you might think of the politics of director Clint Eastwood or the person the movie is based on, that is some solid material, that you could probably make an excellent movie out of. Which is why I’m surprised how little of this movie works. The movie is, overall, a handsomely shot bore, with nothing to say about the character or the circumstances surrounding him.
One of the biggest issues is that the film appears to be blissfully unaware of how certain things are going to read on screen. It plays its heroic character completely straight but Kyle, as written in this movie, comes across as an arrogant, bigoted bully. A moment that suck to me is when he opines that a recently dead soldier’s doubts about the war was what killed him, as they drive away from his funeral and I was shocked at how much of an asshole it made him look like.
Some of that might be intentional, an attempt to explore the background of a person who is regarded as a hero but there’s no payoff to any of it. Do they want to question his motives and ask whether it matters, ala Taxi Driver? Do they want to show him fighting his own demons on his way to become a hero? Do they want to show the psychological damage his record and responsibilities give him?
Nope. The film never gives the lead character any real doubts, depth or even something resembling an arc. It shows us his wife falling apart as he continually reenlists and his obsession which puts him and his fellow soldiers at risk but always goes out of it’s way to make sure that he’s shown to be in the right.
Hell, it never shows him working much for his almost supernatural sniper skills. He’s already an expert right from childhood, and he flat out contradicts his instructor on shooting techniques. Even his third act struggle against PTSD is resolved offscreen without any real fuss.
That kind of lean, stripped down filmmaking has worked for Eastwood in the past, but without anything to grab on to, there’s no investment. It doesn’t matter how many enemies you show him downing or how well Eastwood directs it (and he does, he’s still a good director), if I don’t have a reason to care about the lead, the movie is gonna be boring.
And when it’s not boring, it’s just bewilderingly hard to take seriously. The film creates 2 new villains for Kyle to take down almost entirely from whole cloth. The first is an enemy sniper who is also a preternaturally skilled marksman. The second, and I’m not making a word of this up, is a psychopathic enforcer who torturers informers with a power drill, operates out of a kitchen filled with human bodies and is nicknamed The Butcher.
The problems these characters is twofold. The first is that they throw any argument of ‘Accurate to history’ right out the window. The second is that they completely destroy the tone. Both of them are so cartoonishly villainous that they don’t fit with the otherwise serious film. You can be either The Hurt Locker or Batman, you cannot be both.
But, as bad as they are, even they speak of wasted potential. The enemy sniper acts a Bizarro world version of Kyle, which seems like it could be used to show the other side of the conflict, that he too is just fighting for his homeland, but he never gets anything resembling characterization.
The Butcher, on the other hand, could easily be used to humanize the innocent Iraqis he terrorizes. But aside from one brief scene where he’s introduced, no scene showing any sympathy for the Iraqis ever shows up, and every one of them that appears after that scene is irredeemably evil.
That’s another thing that bothers me. Without getting too far into it, almost great every war film, from The Hurt Locker to Full Metal Jacket to Saving Private Ryan has benefited from humanizing the enemy and showing both sides of the conflict. But no scene like that comes up in this film. In a conflict as morally grey as this one, a scene like that is crucial, and the lack of it is a gaping hole that could sink a much better movie.
Hm? Oh, Cooper’s performance? Yeah, he’s alright. He’s certainly better than he was in American Hustle in that he’s not screaming or doing schtick at the wrong times. But I’m sorry, how many times have we seen this? There is absolutely nothing in his performance that’s unique. In fact, for my money, the more interesting performance is from Sienna Miller as his wife, even though she doesn’t get enough screentime to get fleshed out.
I’ve yet to comment in depth on the Oscar nominations, and I am saving most of my commentary for our (eventual) post on the subject. But I honestly can’t fathom what mind would watch Selma and American Sniper and decide that Sniper is more worthy of Oscars. All politics aside, American Sniper does not work and is really not worth seeing.
Elessar is a 24 year old Alaskan born cinephile and the thought combining Hurt Locker and Batman reminds him of Holy Terror, which makes him vomit blood.
– Bradley Cooper is pretty good and Sienna Miller is better
– Clint Eastwood can still direct some pretty good action scenes
– it’s an interesting enough subject
– dramatic engagement is pretty much nonexistent
– nothing resembling an arc for it’s lead character
– tone is pretty inconsistent