There are some amazing stories that have come from the ashes of the Iraq War, but so far, it appears that Kathryn Bigelow is the only person capable of making them pop on the big screen. Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” has a whale of a protagonist, a carefree good ol’ boy who gave up his easy-going existence to serve his country and became one of the most decorated soldiers in American history. Sadly, the movie about his life does little to separate itself from its Iraq War movie brethren, save for the occasional moments where our hero has qualms about killing complete strangers. It is perfectly enjoyable, and it is well made, but it doesn’t bring anything new to the table. To add insult to injury, the off-camera ending feels like a cheat.
From an early age, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) was raised to be the kid who protected the bullies from the sheep. He was a good shot and, as an adult, he enjoyed his simple life touring as a rodeo cowboy, but after watching 9/11 unfold on his TV, he volunteers for military service. The recruiter suggests the Navy SEALS, and Chris impresses his superiors with his marksmanship. Chris is assigned to assist a troop of Marines as their eyes in the sky, as it were. The job was not easy – his first two confirmed kills are as brutal as it gets – but Chris excels at it, and before long his fellow soldiers are calling him The Legend. The Legend, however, is having issues dealing with the moral dilemmas that come with his work, and the ‘don’t be a baby’ aspect of his military training leads him to internalize much of his anxiety, at the great expense of his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) and their children.
It’s curious that the vast majority of Eastwood’s recent directorial efforts have been period pieces. Technically, “American Sniper” is as well, but it’s close enough to the present to count as a contemporary piece. Is this coincidence, or a sign that he would prefer to make films that take place in a time where he feels more comfortable? Obviously we don’t know, but the “Gravity”-esque synth work in the score, combined with this film taking place closer to the present than anything he’s done since 2010’s “Hereafter,” suggests that Eastwood is trying a little harder than usual to prove that his work still has an “edge,” damn it. He need not protest like this. If anything, he needs to pick better scripts.
It’s easy to see why Cooper was drawn to this role: he gets to play a character like nothing he’s played to date. He’s a burly tough guy, he has an accent, and he’s a hero. And to Cooper’s credit, his Kyle is believable; he does a great job balancing the outward bravado with the inward struggle to reconcile his acts with his conscience. (It would probably help him a lot to talk about his conflicted emotions, but when your nickname is The Legend, and you’re a SEAL, it’s understood that you are “tough enough” to handle whatever ugliness the job sends your way. Sigh.) The rest of the cast, including Miller, are window dressing for Cooper. This is not an indictment of them; the movie is just written that way. And while we’re talking about how the movie is written, the aforementioned off-camera ending is maddening. Cooper’s Kyle is a very likable character; the audience deserved to see how it ends, rather than read about it.
“American Sniper” is the kind of movie that causes reviewers to doubt themselves, because of the talent involved. Clint Eastwood is directing. Bradley Cooper is the lead. It’s a movie about a decorated war hero, and the studio seems to be really high on it. Shouldn’t it be, you know, better than this? Well, perhaps. This wouldn’t be the first time that A-list talent made an average war movie. Indeed, Eastwood hasn’t made a compelling movie since 2008’s “Gran Torino.” Even if he had given “American Sniper” his best effort (which he didn’t), he had no chance of spinning this into gold. It’s watchable, but nonessential.(3 / 5)
This originally ran December 23, 2014 on Bullz-Eye.com.