U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle is the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history with 160 confirmed kills out of 255 probable kills. American Sniper, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper, sets out to tell his story from his early days as a Texas youth, through his four tours in Iraq and his subsequent attempt to return to family life with his wife and two children. Eastwood clumsily directs Jason Hall‘s (Paranoia) clumsier script, based on Kyle’s own memoir, bringing a little bit of energy to the story with Kyle’s time in Iraq, mixed with embarrassing, soap opera level melodrama whenever he returns home. However, even the Iraq moments feel false as anyone making a film involving Navy SEALs better pay close attention to Kathryn Bigelow‘s Zero Dark Thirty as she set a high bar for anyone hoping to capture the intensity of tactical warfare with a sense of authenticity.
It’s almost astonishing how dull American Sniper becomes as a result of the stop/start nature of the made-for-TV storytelling. We move from Kyle’s personal life with his wife (Sienna Miller) to the sand-blown desert where Kyle is forced to decide whether or not to shoot a child as the kills continue to pile up. The building inner-crisis Kyle faces as he must continue to kill to protect his fellow soldiers, accompanied with the fact he is still taking human life, is interesting, but only briefly touched upon. Of course, a level of subtlety could easily be appreciated if everything else wasn’t delivered with such blunt-force mediocrity.
When Kyle returns home he’s a blank face, his wife forced to say the obvious, “Even when you’re here you’re not here!” and “I just want my husband back!” They are scenes that write themselves. Scenes you’ve seen countless times before and many times better. This isn’t to say there isn’t truth in such sentiments, but if you can’t at least find less cliche ways in portraying war time trauma on screen what’s the point? Just going back to Bigelow again, her final scenes in The Hurt Locker were far more affecting than anything Eastwood attempts here.
There are also moments where the story detours to focus on Kyle’s brother, Jeff (Keir O’Donnell), and his trouble in following in his brother’s footsteps as we see very early on that Chris is the strong one and Jeff the weak. This difference in character is reinforced in a brief coming together later in the film only to have us never hear from Jeff again even though the dramatic beats of the storytelling lead us to believe Jeff is unlikely to survive. Go ahead, test whomever you might see this movie with and once you walk out of the theater ask them, “Whatever happened to the brother?” I did this and the person I asked had to think hard to even remember who I was talking about even though there are moments it seems Jeff is going to become an important aspect of the story.
Kudos to Cooper, however, he gives a good performance. As much as it pains me to speak ill of the film giving the hero’s story it sets out to tell, Cooper steps in and delivers a strong and personable performance. However, as much as I would like to say we get a true sense of the kind of guy Kyle is, the story gets in the way time and again. As much as the Iraq scenes deliver a little energy, they also turn American Sniper into a shoddy, cinematic video game with the personal stories back home serving as the interludes between tours where Kyle must complete missions all while a fictional main antagonist is perched in the darkness.
Enter Mustafa, played with all the stereotypical silliness of a villain by Sammy Sheik. Mustafa is the Kyle equivalent on the other side and he becomes Kyle’s white whale. Clean cut and chiseled, Eastwood actually includes a scene where Mustafa gets “the call” as he too is now hunting Kyle, a bounty placed on his head. Mustafa, in slow motion, preps his weapon and slowly leaves his home, ready to kill. Cut to him jumping across rooftops as if he’s in one of Luc Besson’s parkous actioners and it all becomes entirely laughable.
The themes are all present. Kyle was clearly a soldier determined to keep his fellow soldiers safe with a strong sense of duty in a kill or be killed war, but the way Hall’s script and Eastwood’s directing muddles things up, had this film not starred Bradley Cooper you would have thought it was made for television. I guess we can at least give thanks that Eastwood and cinematographer Tom Stern have finally decided to add a little color to their images, rather than going for their signature near monochrome look, and even the score is a bit of a switch for Eastwood, but then again, soft piano themes wouldn’t really fit, though it’s not as if that’s stopped Eastwood before.