WRITTEN REVIEW – American Sniper (2015)
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Written by: Jason Hall
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller & Sammy Sheik
Music: Joseph S. DeBeasi
Release Date: January 16th
Before I saw ‘American Sniper‘, I was curious as to what I’d be getting into after it received six Academy Award nominations this week; “Best Picture”, “Best Actor”, “Best Adapted Screenplay”, “Best Film Editing”, “Best Sound Editing” and “Best Sound Mixing”. While the Oscars can’t always be a reliable source when it comes to the quality of a movie (see recent examples such as ‘The Blind Side‘, ‘Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close‘ and ‘American Hustle‘), movies about warfare tend to be right on the money when it comes to Academy Award recognition.
A war movie getting a nomination for “Best Picture” puts it right up there with the greats such as ‘Schindler’s List‘, ‘Saving Private Ryan‘, ‘The Hurt Locker‘, ‘Casablanca‘, ‘Gone With The Wind‘ etc. So ‘American Sniper‘ is in a very prestigious club. Does the movie deserve to be held to such high acclaim?
No. In fact, ‘American Sniper‘ is more akin to war films such as Michael Bay’s ‘Pearl Harbour‘, the 2012 remake of ‘Red Dawn‘ and ‘Inchon‘, in that it’s pretty darn bad.
‘American Sniper‘ follows the life of Chris Kyle (Cooper), who became a war hero and a legend for having the largest number of confirmed kills during his four tours of the Iraq War. He became known as the deadliest sniper in U.S. history with 160 confirmed kills and probably many more actual kills before coming home suffering PTSD where he was murdered on a shooting range by an ex-marine he was trying to help rehabilitate.
Clint Eastwood has always had a tendency to be detached from the story he is directing and while that makes movies such as ‘Million Dollar Baby‘ quietly powerful, for ‘American Sniper‘ it seems that he missed the mark altogether when presenting Chris Kyle’s biography.
Without getting too political, Chris Kyle joined the U.S. Navy SEALs after the events of 9/11, but apart from him wanting to protect his squad members from their enemies using his sharpshooting skills, ‘American Sniper‘ offers no perspective, viewpoint, opinion or any sort of reflection on the “War on Terror” or the decade U.S. troops spent in the Middle-East fighting in a war that (objectively speaking) didn’t really accomplish much when all is said and done. ‘American Sniper‘ condenses a highly political topic (especially when you tell it from the viewpoint of Chris Kyle) into a by-the-numbers action film that’s so singularly arch in its depiction on the conflict that it can only be described as disturbingly patriotic.
Why does Chris Kyle enlist in the SEALs? Because he loves America just that much…even though he’s leaving his struggling, grieving wife behind with his two children. When portrayed so matter-of-factly like ‘American Sniper‘ does, it’s hard to root for Chris Kyle as a father because he’s constantly abandoning his family to go on another tour of Afghanistan. A smarter/better film-maker would have delved into Kyle’s mind to find out just what was compelling him to go back, but ‘American Sniper‘ doesn’t even attempt to do that. One scene has Chris Kyle at home watching the conflict unfold on television and seeing soldiers get taken out by Sniper fire before decrying their enemies as “savages” and “evil”, but that’s painting the complex, decade long endeavour into stark black and white terms which simply cannot be done with this story.
As far as ‘American Sniper‘ is concerned, anyone living in a vague desert city that’s not America is “evil” because…they’re not from ‘Merica, I guess.
There’s one scene where Chris and a small group of SEALs take refuge in a home in Afghanistan where the family living there offer them refuge and even a meal. This initially seems like something akin to what last year’s ‘Fury‘ was trying to do by indicating that even people in the middle of the conflict where the warfare is taking place are friendly and don’t want any part in the fight…until it turns out the father is storing more weapons and ammunition than Arthur Webley in ‘Hot Fuzz‘ under his bed.
Because of course he is.
The movie is so determined to draw such a defined line between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” that ‘American Sniper‘ creates a super-villain called “The Butcher” who tortures children with power-drills and stores chopped up body parts in large freezers. “The Butcher” is an entirely fictional creation of the movie.
Because of course he is.
The sequence in the film’s most memorable trailer has Chris Kyle decide whether or not to shoot a child that has been given a grenade by his mother. Despite it being a prominent scene in the marketing and in the movie itself, it’s an entirely fictional event written specifically for ‘American Sniper‘ where it’s meant to say “Even the KIDS in Afghanistan are evil!!”.
Because you know the drill.
Before winding up in the hands of Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg was initially supposed to direct ‘American Sniper‘ with the movie portraying two parallel stories of Chris Kyle and a rival insurgent Sniper named “Mustafa” (Shiek) to portray both sides of the conflict and allow the audience to relate to and emphasise with the opposing side. I desperately want to see THAT movie.
Despite ‘American Sniper‘ being so determined to strong-arm its viewers into disliking its antagonists, it becomes difficult to root for the SEALs because they’re so two-dimensional and cliché. When one solider announces to Chris Kyle that he’s going to propose to his girlfriend you can count the seconds until he gets shot and/or killed in an impending gunfight.
Incidentally, I did count. 37 seconds.
‘American Sniper‘ does nothing to portray anyone other than Chris Kyle and his wife Taya (Miller) as anything other than background noise. The war movie I mentioned at the beginning of this review, ‘Inchon‘, became infamous for literally having its background characters be cardboard cut-outs where you could even see the strings holding them up. ‘American Sniper‘ seems reminiscent of ‘Inchon‘ in terms of character development. There’s no sense of companionship or comradery with Kyle or any of his fellow soldiers or superiors meaning that there’s no attachment to them in the many gun-battles that take place.
Bradley Cooper is great in the lead, giving a great understated performance and at a distance he’s unrecognisable thanks to his different facial structure, facial hair and bulked-up physique, but when the camera gets up close Cooper is very recognisable. Not to belittle Cooper and his commitment to the role (he’s also a Producer on the movie) but whereas actors like Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Ruffalo and Michael Keaton vying for awards recognition walked on and off set as their respective characters, Bradley Cooper is undoubtedly playing a character. Once again, not to say Bradley Cooper is bad in the movie as he really isn’t. He’s pretty darn good and he sells some of the best sequences in the movie where he has to make some difficult, potentially immoral decisions. While these short segments are the highlight of the movie and actually tap into this premise, I can’t help but feel like these tense sequences in the hands of Clint Eastwood could have been grip-the-armrest-in-terror sequences in the hands of someone like Spielberg.
Sienna Miller as Chris’s wife actually does too good a job selling the tormented wife aspect that is basically her entire role. She pleads with Chris to stay at home and be a father to her children and she does such a good job selling it that it paints Chris as a wholly unlikeable figure as he refuses to listen to his despairing wife. But with ‘American Sniper‘ trying to paint Chris as a patriot who did everything for the greater good and for ‘Merica, then it just hits home how unsuited for this material Clint Eastwood is.
‘American Sniper‘, despite its large cast, globe-hopping narrative and its many frequent gunfights, is an absolute slog because we are simply given no reason to get invested in these characters and the narrative is so simplistically banal that its runtime of 133 minutes feels like an eternity. Chris Kyle spends time with his family, goes on tour, makes shots, loses shots, loses comrades, goes home, lather, rinse, repeat. The only thing that breaks this mold is in the last 15 minutes when he goes home, retires, overcomes his PTSD off-screen before his death which is reduced to a single on-screen sentence before the credits role. His death is also off-screen.
If the movie had sent Chris Kyle home at around the half-way point and had him overcome his PTSD as well as address the tragic circumstances of his death, then ‘American Sniper’ could have genuinely had something to say about the life Chris Kyle lived, the conflict he was involved with or American Patriotism in general but, of course, Clint Eastwood wants none of that. ‘American Sniper‘ could have been better off as a straight-faced documentary, but with the inherent fictionalisation of a film, it just comes off as a bog-standard action movie.
However, when it concerns the weight of the subject matter and the life of Chris Kyle, you really cannot do that.
Chris Kyle fought in the Middle-East for over 1000 days to protect America, racked up hundreds of kills, got involved in many gun-battles and lost many friends in the conflict. He survived three gunshot wounds, two helicopter crashes, six IED attacks as well as numerous surgeries (none of which are shown or even hinted at in the movie because it’s not interested in making an effort). He then overcame the trauma that came with his time there before getting murdered in his homeland by a single lone-nut with a handgun who he was trying to help.
You CAN’T ignore the politics there. But Clint Eastwood does. And, with respect to Eastwood who has had a great and storied career involved in movies, that is cowardly.
The death of Chris Kyle happened during the scripting process of this movie as it took place 13 months after his autobiography was released, but that’s still no excuse to tack it on at the end like the movie does. Like I said before, Chris Kyle goes to the gunrange, the screen fades to black, a single sentence says he was killed there and then the credits roll with stock-footage of his funeral in the background. You cannot end a movie about Chris Kyle like that. It’s so abrupt and so poorly handled, it almost seems like a misguided SNL sketch.
“This man fought for and defended America! ROLL CREDITS! Oh yeah he was killed by an American but we’ll forget about that part because AMERICA!”
Speaking of mishandled comedy sketches, the production values of ‘American Sniper’ are a joke. Despite costing $60 million to put together, the shot composition and camerawork are completely by the numbers and the action scenes have no weight despite some admittedly well-done gore effects. The gun sound effects are good but they’re clearly out-of-sync with the actual shots fired. One action scene has an enemy soldier firing a machine gun at the SEALs with the sound effects blaring through the speakers, but even though the soldier stops firing and hides behind cover, the same machine gun is still sounding off as if he never stopped. Another soldier, despite firing his machine gun in short, intermittent bursts (indicated by the muzzle flash from the gun, which would actually help give the sound editor a visual frame of reference for what to do with the gun sound effects) seems to be firing continuously and non-stop according to the bullet sound effects.
This movie was nominated at the Oscars for “Best Sound Editing”, people…
The special effects are even worse, with many shots above desert cities looking akin to the opening cutscene from the first ‘The Sims‘ game from 2000 in terms of visual fidelity. The green screen behind actors talking in an airborne helicopter looks like it was done by a no-budget YouTuber and one entirely CGI shot of a dead enemy soldier in a sandstorm with a 2D face on a poorly rendered and stuck onto a 3D body was the second most unintentionally funny moment of the movie. The most unintentionally funny moment comes from Cooper and Miller having arguments while holding their newborn babies and the babies in question are so obviously fake and plastic that I wouldn’t be surprised if Clint Eastwood hurriedly bought the prop from Toys R’ Us on his way to the set after realising the prop-department forgot to supply one for filming. One moment has Bradley Cooper use one of his massive sausage-shaped fingers to blatantly move the arm of the lifeless, plastic baby and it was so phoney that I genuinely let out a small shriek of laughter in the movie theatre at what was meant to be a profound moment.
Is there anything good about ‘American Sniper‘? Like I said before Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller are good, the make-up effects are strong and there are a small handful of tense sequences, though they could have been so much more in more capable hands, or at least in the hands of a film-maker that cared. The fact of the matter is that ‘American Sniper‘ has nothing to say and it doesn’t even try to make any sort of point or statement about Chris Kyle’s life or the war he was involved in and that’s the biggest cinematic crime of all that this film commits.
If you’re looking for a profound movie about an American soldier whose chosen form of warfare puts him up-close and personal with his targets as well as overcoming PTSD only to be killed by someone he was trying to help…stay FAR away from ‘American Sniper‘. It’s a stunningly mismanaged movie that’s getting a lot of awards buzz.
Because of course it is.
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Posted: 18th Jan 15