I was anxious to see American Sniper even before it received so many Oscar nominations, but I was dubious as to how much I would actually enjoy it. My disinterest in most “war movies” is well documented; for whatever reason, I have difficulty connecting with this genre of films. I find the battle scenes too chaotic and often the characters too underdeveloped. I continue to try these films with the hope that something will stick, but the results are decidedly not in the genres favor. Despite that track record, I enjoy Bradley Cooper and have liked many of Clint Eastwood’s (non-war related) directorial efforts so I was looking forward to giving American Sniper a try. I hoped that the focus on one man’s story and his role as a sniper, rather than a soldier on the front line, would eliminate many of the issues that I tend to have with films set on the battle field.
The more focused story and the minimal use of large battle scenes combined with a strong performance by Bradley Cooper made a film that I really liked, though I can’t say that I loved. Based on his memoir, American Sniper tells the story of Christopher Kyle, a Navy SEAL that was proclaimed to be the most deadly sniper in the history of the U.S. armed forces. While there are some flashbacks to flesh out his early years and military training, the primary focus of the movie is Kyle’s four tours of duty in Iraq and the effect that they had on him. Though he believed in the cause and as proud of what he had done to protect his fellow soldiers, American Sniper depicts the gradual toll that this takes on his psyche and his difficulty in adjusting back to civilian life in between tours. Not only do we ask soldiers to be prepared to lay down their lives for their country, but we also ask them to be prepared to take life. That is a burden for anyone. But for snipers, the act of killing is more intimate and personal in a way; you are basically hunting human beings – quietly stalking them and waiting for that perfect shot. Before you end a person’s life, a sniper has to watch them. To be a sniper requires a certain type of person, but it also brings with it its own special challenges. His first official kills are most likely not what he had in mind when he signed up.
Because of Kyle’s occupation, American Sniper is a far more quiet film than you might anticipate. While most of the film takes place out on the battlefield, Kyle’s relative isolation during many of scenes means that he is removed from the action. I think that is a real strength of the movie, because during these moments we are better able to understand Kyle as a person and how his effectiveness at his job does not come without baggage. This is a movie is more about a man than about a war; Iraq may be the backdrop, but with the exception of one climatic action sequence this is a much stiller movie. That doesn’t mean that American Sniper is boring; if anything, the judicious use of combat actually ramps up the tension and makes it slightly easier to get inside Kyle’s head a bit. To me, it is much more nerve wracking to have a person in your sights (literally) and waiting for the moment to pull the trigger. But if you are expecting Saving Private Ryan level epic-ness, you are going to be somewhat disappointed.
Bradley Cooper is to be credited for how effectively he brought Chris Kyle to life; not only did Cooper do the obvious things like bulk up and work on his Texas accent, but his nuanced performance does a beautiful job of showing the slow unraveling of Kyle with each additional tour of duty. Out on the front line with his comrades in arms, there is a vitality to Cooper’s performance. This is a man who loves the comradery of military life and wants to protect the lives of the other soldiers. This is where Kyle feels most comfortable. You only see the slightest hint of how this is impacting his psyche, until Kyle intermittently comes home to his wife and children. Civilian life is a mystery to Kyle and while he wants to engage with his family, he just no longer knows how to do so completely. This is when Cooper allows the cracks in Kyle’s armor to be most visible, but there is still a restraint. This is a man that is struggling, not because he is weak, but because of the tremendous burden that he’s been asked to carry. Kyle never completely loses it, but Cooper’s artful depiction makes it clear that this is a man that is slowly drowning. Cooper is so good that he completely disappears into the role. There’s no costume or prosthetics to hide behind; Cooper just becomes this character so completely that you forget that you are watching a movie star up on the screen. This is a natural performance that shows the conflict that was slowly bubbling up inside Kyle as the conflict raged on around him – not a conflict over the war or its justness, but in processing the taking of so many lives. This movie was a passion project for Cooper and it clearly shows.
I also have to commend Clint Eastwood for how he shot this movie. Despite its subject matter, this is a beautiful looking film and his use of camera angles and perspective serve not only to make the movie visually interesting, but compliment Cooper’s performance in helping the viewer understand Kyle’s point of view, both figuratively and literally. Eastwood knows how to film a movie about war and he shows of his skill in American Sniper.
Yet as much as I enjoyed Bradley Cooper’s performance, I can only saw that this was a good – not great – film. I can’t put my finger exactly on what limited my praise of the film, but I think it is partially the overall thinness of the story. All of the depth comes from Cooper’s performance, rather than the narrative itself. There is a fair amount of repetition, which is probably very accurate but not interesting to watch. I would have liked a balance that was more focused on his life at home and slightly less on his time in Iraq, simply to provide better context for his conflict. The film doesn’t take an overt perspective on the war, nor does it have to, but I think I would have enjoyed a film that had a little more complexity written into it. Cooper infuses as many layers as he can, but there are not a lot of layers inherently written into the narrative. Most biopics tend to whitewash a lot, and this film did take some creative license, but I think the inclusion of more shades of grey would have only strengthened the film.
Some other thoughts:
- During the wedding scene, Kyle finds out that he’s being deployed and I had flashbacks to the wedding I went to where my date found out in the middle of the reception that he was going to be deployed to Afghanistan. Kind of put a damper on the evening.
- There is a scene in the film where it is very obvious that they used a fake baby. Really obvious. Like, distractingly obvious.
I have no idea what was going on in that scene because I was staring at the doll that they had swaddled. Even more disconcerting was that they piped in real baby noises. Turns out, I am not the only person who noticed this. Screenwriter Jason Hall even felt the need for an explanation. Still, I don’t know why they didn’t just re-shoot the scene or remove the baby from the scene. To use the doll was a big mistake, based on all the attention it’s getting.
- Sienna Miller doesn’t get a ton of screen time, but she was very good as Kyle’s wife Taya.
- I knew the fate of Chris Kyle before the movie, but if you are interested in reading more about the real life story, you can look here, here and here.
- Chris Kyle appeared on Conan when his book came out:
- I got surprisingly excited when Sam Jaeger (Joel, Parenthood) turned up in a small part. Jake McDorman (Evan, Greek) has a slightly larger role as one of Kyle’s brothers in arms.
- The success of the film may complicate a trial associated with the movie. *Spoilers if you don’t know what happened to Kyle*
- Even I got a little teary eyed at the real life footage that they use during the end credits.
- I saw the film in IMAX – a rare splurge on my part – and that only enhanced the film.
I thought American Sniper was a solid, not stellar, movie that is elevated by a fantastic performance by Bradley Cooper. This is a film that is more a character study than a war movie, which definitely contributed to my overall enjoyment of the film. I’m not surprised that it was nominated for Best Picture, but I’m not sure that it actually deserves to win. Still, it absolutely a movie worth seeing. There’s been a lot of controversy surrounding the film recently, but I walked out of the film reminded of the tremendous sacrifice that our member of the military and their families make on a regular basis. I didn’t see any ideological slant or propaganda either way, but I also wasn’t looking for it either. Not my favorite film of this awards season, but worthy of being in the conversation.
American Sniper is currently in wide release.