American Sniper (2014) / Drama-War
MPAA Rated: R for strong and disturbing war violence, and language throughout including some sexual references
Running Time: 132 min.
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Max Charles, Luke Grimes, Kyle Gallner, Sam Jaeger, Keir O'Donnell
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenplay: Jason Hall (based on the memoir, "Chris Kyle: The Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History" by Chirs Kyle with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice)
Review published January 11, 2014
Clint Eastwood (Jersey Boys, Flags of Our Fathers) directs this adaptation of Chris Kyle's 2012 memoir on his years spent as the "most lethal sniper in American history" for the sheer amount of kills (160 confirmed)) he amassed during his four tours in the Iraq War. Kyle (Cooper, Guardians of the Galaxy) had been moved to join the military effort after witnessing the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and after a grueling training process for a 30-year-old recruit, he ends up joining the elite Navy SEALs unit as a marksman. His prowess behind the barrel and saving of many lives of his fellow soldiers quickly earns him legendary status, and also puts a price on his head by the enemy, who've proclaimed him the "Devil of Ramadi". The film also deals with Kyle's courtship and subsequent marriage with the spirited Taya (Miller, Foxcatcher), who aches for the progressively troubled Kyle to come home and be the husband and father he promised he'd be.
There are two reasons that American Sniper works as a film. First and foremost is a beefier-than-usual Bradley Cooper's finely nuanced performance as Kyle. Not only is it compelling to see the psychological impact that would dog Kyle while in the theater of battle, but his disconnect with reality when he would be given leave to try to rekindle his relationships with his wife and children back home also serve to showcase the ongoing conflict for many soldiers even when their tour of duty has expired. Still, the attempts to take out the highly dangerous Al Qaeda bigwig Zarqawi, dubbed "The Butcher" for his torture and dismemberment of those who cause him dismay is quite unnerving, and though an R-rated film, Eastwood keeps some of the more graphic atrocities he commits off the screen.
The second is the riveting nature of many of the scenes of the harrowing craziness of the war effort, in which Kyle takes out those who are the obvious enemy, yet his stomach has to turn when he's forced to take out those who are coerced into becoming pawns in the battle, especially women and children. He's reluctant to kill, yet knows that if he does not, the deaths of his own men, and probably himself, will be the end result. Like a surgeon, he has to remove the cancer of death before it spreads, even if it means he has to make split-second decisions on who can live or die based on their current actions. And when he does fail to get his target, or just fail to even know when disaster takes place, Kyle also must lament the soldiers he couldn't help save. It's a burden that carries him through to re-upping for the next tour, thinking that more soldiers will die without him there to protect them.
Nevertheless, it's not all compelling. Constructs, such as a sniper counter-foil on the Iraqi side, makes the production feel more like a movie than it does as a real-life account, going for sometimes cheap theatrics that undermine the grip of the scenarios that should keep us wondering just what crazy thing is going to happen next. Calls made to his wife back home also feel manufactured for emotional beats, especially during a rooftop climax where Kyle begins to think he's probably a goner. The epilogue of Kyle's attempt to finally assimilate to civilian society, the parts that are obviously not from his book for reasons that are abundantly clear once you know the full story, feels rushed and doesn't reap well the poignancy of what subsequently happens in his effort to keep other soldiers like himself from drowning in their own internal struggles with PTSD and physical impediments.
American Sniper feels like a rough draft of an idea that needs more work in its screenplay in order to ultimately become something more than a mish-mash of interesting elements that doesn't congeal satisfactorily. Either it should have been about the psychological impact to snipers, about the American involvement in the Middle East, or about the struggles that persist for ex-soldiers trying to cope after seeing the horrors of war. As it covers all three of these and more, American Sniper is always intriguing and often nail-biting, but falls short of greatness by not tying it all together in order to make some sort of sense as to why Kyle's story is important, other than the fact that he heroically saved many American soldiers through his ability to take out the enemy before they could do some major damage.
©2015 Vince Leo