Clint Eastwood is easily one of the best directors in Hollywood so him tackling the incredible story of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle is something to get pretty excited about. We already know he has the war movie chops thanks to Letters from Iwo Jima.
American war heroes are a tricky business in this day and age. We know too much of the truth of war thanks to it being beamed into our houses and on the news nightly. It isn’t all heroes and perfect endings where the good guys win. American Sniper tries to tackle this modern day contradiction of what a war hero is, but can it find out when all it wants to do is shoot things?
Director: Clint Eastwood
Release Date: December 25, 2014
You may have heard of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) in the news as he was the most successful sniper in American history. The man is a legend and American Sniper tracks that legend from his first shot to his last. Most of the film is spent in war zones, but it hops back to Kyle’s home life every so often to show how his service in the field is tearing him down at home with his wife, Taya Renae Kyle (Sienna Miller) and child. There’s also a running story line of an ex-olympic sniper fighting for the bad guys that constantly haunts, kills and scares the soldiers that Chris is protecting. It’s the mugguffin (whether he be real or not) that keeps the combat part of the film going.
By bouncing Chris back and forth between deployments and home life the movie attempts to show us the effect that killing and constant war has on the sniper. It would be an incredibly interesting approach if the film ever fully committed to it. Instead it is content to focus on the war zone and leave Chris’ PTSD and family issues to be background fodder to thrilling war sequences. There’s an attempt to create a tension here, but it feels false as the film, much like the soldier, feels far more comfortable and happy when it’s taking out enemy combatants.
When the movie is doing this it is fantastic. Eastwood’s direction is in your face and intense. The kind of war scenes that make your palms sweaty as you watch them. Chris’ first shot is a perfect example of this as he is tasked with taking out a mother and child who are moving to destroy a garrison with a grenade. From the moment this scene begins Eastwood pulls you in with a dirty style of direction that is stunning. Every war scene in this film is fantastic.
It makes it all the worse when it cuts back home and seems to almost lost interest. Yes, there is tension there, but the movie never cares about it. We get 20 minutes in a battle zone and then two at home until Chris is back again. While that may be an authentic representation of how his time was spent it turns Chris’ mental health issues into nothing more than a throw away. The end of the film is a long battle when it should really be focusing on the man. To tell the story of a modern American war hero you can’t just tell the story of war.
Cooper seems to understand this, imbuing his performance with a certain timidity that you wouldn’t expect from a NAVY Seal role. He’s great from scene to scene, though nothing that will win him an Oscar. He definitely beefed up for the role though, and it is nice to see him take a departure from the smarmy characters he’s been tackling recently. It is a different slant for him and it suits him well.
American Sniper hits on the sniper part of its title, but sadly forgets to talk about the American. This is a complex man who is a hero, but by marginalizing his home life and mental issues we do him and other Veterans a disservice. We should expect more out of our war movies, because our soldiers aren’t just heroes, they’re men.