Simply a Legend
A Film Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
Perhaps Clint Eastwood is trying to beat a record for directing the most films or something. He should stop doing that. Responsible for the ugly mess of a biopic in Jersey Boys, Eastwood now tackles the tale of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. Kyle has the distinction of having been credited with the most amount of kills on the battlefield, a record of one hundred and sixty. He earned the nickname “Legend” and with that number count, the nickname makes sense. But amidst the heroics, there was darkness present throughout the narrative of Kyle’s autobiography of the same name that is oddly missing here. That’s not to say there isn’t some truly graphic, shocking material in this film – there’s a drill sequence that is by far some of the most visceral horror I have experienced. But Eastwood is less interested in exploring the depths of the dark cataclysms of a sniper’s life within the constructs of a war zone than he is to present a hero. Whether or not you find Kyle to be a true hero is another issue entirely. It’s to the film’s extreme detriment that the darkness and horrors present in the book are nearly all left untouched here. Eastwood isn’t incapable of nuance, his greatest film is arguably Letters from Iwo Jima, which does the job of being a film about the Japanese side during World War II perfectly. I don’t need a version of American Sniper that is told through the eyes of Iraqi insurgents doing parkour (that actually happens here) and frankly no one does. But at the very least the film should attempt to be as uncomfortable as the material behind it by trying to understand the mess around Kyle. It’s not a mistake that the most compelling material is from the moment where the terror of the war begins to set itself into his mind.
The war sequences in and of themselves are wonderfully tense, a palpable fear being brought to the screen. The opening sequence quickly sells the horror of war, even if it is ultimately a bit false in its predications. The camaraderie between the soldiers is one of the film’s best accomplishments. It feels germane, true, and endearing in ways nothing else on screen does. The action is fantastic and it isn’t disappointing, until Eastwood decides to jump off the cliff, that is. It also never overstays its welcome, cutting into personal drama at just the right moments (albeit with poor editing). But in the midst of the war scenes undercuts a fairly troubling idiocy that severely underwhelms the film at its knees. Taking a page from the fairly vapid, if entertaining, 24, American Sniper is fairly content with taking Iraqis and portraying them as being either terrorist sympathizers or people with hidden secrets that must be uncovered in order to save the day. Sure, some of this are undoubtedly amongst Kyle’s experiences, but crating such vapid limitations is extremely childish and naive. When an Iraqi man offers them food, I breathed, feeling that perhaps the film wasn’t going to go “they’re all suspicious,” but there they go five minutes later. It’s frustrating in the extreme, made all the more so because any reasonable individual would understand that not all Muslims are terrorists, even if they are residing in evacuated towns. A shot of a Muslim woman picking up the phone secretly is especially offensive, its implications dire and its direction undoubtedly poor. It’s a terribly cheap way to ensure tension and one expects more from Eastwood as a director (well, maybe).
Part of that problem is the film’s complete dedication to the idea that Kyle is infallible. No human is, no matter their job or their body count on the battlefield. There’s a certain whitewashed nature to the entire affair that feels intellectually deceptive, as if the filmmakers couldn’t bring themselves to tackle the subject with the maturity that it requires. One doesn’t have to be consistently heroic to be a hero or otherwise. That simply isn’t within human nature. Kyle saved many lives, yet it is also true that he took many and in those moments he took pleasure. That’s not a conjuncture, that’s from his own words within his autobiography. Nor does that necessarily turn him into an antagonist. There’s a fine line to be walked here and the film largely refuses to do so. Where the film begins to shine is when the horror of the war begins to dawn upon him. Even then Kyle can’t bring himself to say that the war was worthless and from one perspective, how could he? How does one simply at the end of the day throw up his or her hands and say what they suffered so much for, choice or otherwise, was pointless? Not many, I can assure you. The PTSD stemming from that conflict and the deaths of the two children explicit in the film is executed nearly flawlessly, even if the barbecue scene is too reminiscent of Homeland and there simply isn’t enough time allotted to that specific endeavor. Cooper plays that disquieted trauma beautifully and the interaction between him and his wife Taya along with the VA visits underscores the urgent need for this nation to truly care for its veterans and their families. You know, outside of being pro-military and then cutting their benefits.
Bradley Cooper is undoubtedly the real star here. Everything that is thrown at him, he absorbs remarkably. It would be a star-making performance if he already wasn’t one. He’s so mesmerizing as Kyle that in one sense you can’t fault them for sticking with his character at the expense of everyone else. Sienna Miller gets a decent amount of screen time yet her character is handled with a simplistic tension that is almost shameful (“the wife”, “the mother”, etc…). Miller gives the role her absolute best, but the writing simply isn’t there for her. Because laziness, the film places a special emphasis on Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), who basically functions as Kyle’s Iraqi counterpart but with zero personality and amazing parkour skills. Inventing a villain was beyond unnecessary as the horror of the war ought to have a compelling antagonist in and of itself. The sharpest character by far is Luke Grimes’ Mac, whose open questioning of the mission in Iraq shakes Kyle to the core and you can see that hurt and trauma playing expertly across Cooper’s eyes. Clint Eastwood has some decent direction but aside from the opening and dust storm sequences and some overhead shots, the direction is largely static. The worst offense Eastwood commits with his camera is a later shot of a bullet flying through the Iraqi airspace in slow motion, ironically robbing the scene of all the potential tension. It’s vapid camerawork at its absolute worst. The audience cheered at that moment, however, which is what I’m assuming they were going for. That in and of itself was far more disquieting than the blood splattering all over the clothes.
In a sense, American Sniper is embodied with American nationalism and not patriotism. More often than not, the two are confused on a regular basis, but after watching this film, the distinction should be sharper than ever before. I’ve made this point before, but bear with me here. Patriotism isn’t sitting at a ball game with a hot dog in one hand and a plastic American flag made in China in the other while wearing the American flag as an item of clothing. Patriotism isn’t yelling “America” at the top of your voice as if to prove that your pitch is really as high as you’ve been claiming all along. Patriotism still isn’t stubbornly believing that America is the greatest country in the world and proclaiming that so often that it becomes your personal catchphrase. That’s more in line with the darker aspects of nationalism, a sort of blind faith that can encapsulate ignorance in a bubble of bliss. It’s that precise bubble that American Sniper lives within, giving off the impression that it valiantly is trying to present something game-changing without ever doing so. It merely pokes at the bubble, coming close to puncturing it but never managing to take the shot. American Sniper tries to become a film about something, yet it always circles itself at the peripherals, as if afraid to truly say anything at all. It’s, to paraphrase the film, a sheep masquerading as a sheep dog. It’s thrilling at times, it’s horrifying, but it’s rarely transcendent.
Title: American Sniper
MPAA Rating: R
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Produced by: Clint Eastwood, Robert Lorenz, Andrew Lazar, Bradley Cooper, Peter Morgan
Screenplay by: Jason Dean Hall
Based On: American Sniper by Chris Kyle
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Max Charles, Luke Grimes, Kyle Gallner, Sam Jaeger, Jake McDorman, Cory Hardrict
Music: Ennio Morricone, Clint Eastwood
Cinematography: Tom Stern
Editing: Joel Cox, Gary D. Roach
Production Company: Village Roadshow Pictures, Mad Chance Productions, 22nd & Indiana Pictures, Malpaso Productions
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Running Time: 132 minutes
Release Dates: November 11, 2014 (AFI Fest), December 25, 2014
Image Courtesy: Schmoes Know