Review: American Sniper
The first of many harrowing, tense moments in American Sniper comes fairly early, but it’s abutted by some bits of clichéd storytelling. When Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle has a woman and a young child in his sights, wondering whether or not they are about to detonate a bomb amidst American soldiers, we are informed that it’s Kyle’s decision alone to make about what to do. That is, to kill the woman and child, or not.
It’s staggeringly powerful, a simple, straightforward moment in a film that doesn’t venture towards the simple enough. Instead this portrait of an American hero, portrayed remarkably by Bradley Cooper, far too often presses hard on the overt symbolism with a heavy hand. In clearly looking to appeal to the widest possible audience, including those who champion God, guns, and family, as well as those looking to embrace a chilling cinematic experience regardless of pride and politics, American Sniper is simultaneously great and frustrating.
Clint Eastwood directs this telling of the life of Kyle, written by James Hall and based on a book penned in part by Kyle. He is a dutiful Texas boy who enlisted in the armed forces, became a Navy Seal, and would be deployed to Iraq on numerous occasions while starting a family back in the homeland. These two settings are not handled equally, and they don’t come close to having the same effect.
That is, the moments in battle are harsh, viscerally effecting and ever-unpredictable. The tension is palpable, the blood is uncomfortable, and the terror feels very real; all of which does a fantastic job to underscore this heroic tale.
However, back home, we’re treating to stories that are familiar on the big screen, as if American Sniper is coasting on the ground laid by other war movies and the understood notion that veterans may and do have difficulty shaking the horrors of war. Eastwood hammers this point home, and it’s one of several moments in this film that remove you from the experience. We see Kyle zoned out when his wife (Sienna Miller) talks to him. Then we see him jump as sounds seem too familiar to gunshots and explosions. Then she says, ‘You’re distant.’ The audience already clued in, but Sniper doesn’t take any chances with symbolism.
Similarly, we watch Kyle and his wife stare at a TV screen with horror as reporter explains what is happening; we don’t need to the camera to pan to the television to see that the twin towers are falling.
At times too American Sniper almost runs as patriot porn, like a flag-waving, gun-toting celebration of America in that generic, sweeping, bumper sticker sense. Kyle’s story is incredible enough without the heavy coating of Freedom, Justice, and American Way. Indeed, he is portrayed as a stoic, proud patriot, a man who saved so many lives and never thought of doing anything but protecting his country, his comrades, and his family. His story isn’t sent up or over-dramatized; but the world around him seems to be.
Sniper though, too needy for its own good, tries to really push up a single enemy – an Iraqi sniper – to create this good versus bad narrative that seems like something out a superhero movie. What we have here is a real life hero instead, and misjudged moments feel more like a cartoonish action movie. ‘This one is for so and so,’ and ‘that’s an impossible shot;’ these, and many more comments, need not be said because the film does a worthy job of establishing consequences and emotion with banal exposition and hyperbole.
While these missteps surely take you out of an otherwise taut experience, American Sniper is a potent film led by a terrific Bradley Cooper that will mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. And I suppose that’s the point.