A late entry to the 2015 Academy Awards race, on the surface it’s easy to see why American Sniper would capture an American audience. But Clint Eastwood’s depiction of Chris “Legend” Kyle manages to restrain itself on the flag-waving, military recruitment film for much of its running time. But does it hit the bull’s eye or shoot blanks?
Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is a good old Texan rodeo cowboy until he finds his calling as a Navy SEAL. When the war in the Middle East breaks out after the attacks of 9/11 Kyle is deployed as a sharp shooter to watch over the marines at ground level. But as his staggering kill count rises so the distance with wife back home Taya (Siena Miller) grows. Before long Chris has been nicknamed “Legend” by his military colleagues and the Iraqi insurgents have placed an increasingly high bounty on his head.
Like Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, American Sniper tells a fascinating true story. The story of a man who is able to kill a child insurgent and be at piece with it knowing he did it in order to keep his brothers-in-arms safe. The film unfolds as a series of events, from moments of sniping prowess to hunting down enemy leaders always juxtaposed with Chris struggling to adjust to life back home between tours. But like Unbroken it lacks a real emotional hook, something to grab you in to the narrative. As such, in telling a true story, American Sniper neglects to tell a gripping one.
The biggest issue is that while watching American Sniper you’re reminded of Kathryn Bigelow’s staggeringly gritty vision of modern warfare that was The Hurt Locker. Both films deal with similar issues, those of men seemingly more at ease taking heavy fire than they are living what others consider a normal life. But American Sniper is too focused on recounting events than conjuring a sense of war as the ultimate rush.
For the most part it never hones in on what it wants to say. An early introduction to a young Kyle shows his father painting him as a sheep dog, a man who will grow up protecting the flock from nasty wolves. But soon after this ideology is lost, Kyle instead being little more than a military killing machine. At times you half expect him to utter the immortal words from Full Metal Jacket of “this is my rifle, there are many others like it but this one is mine”. As the film progresses Kyle seems more interested in getting the big bad guys than he does looking over the flock. This is captured all too worryingly in a final shoot-out that sees Kyle put his platoon in serious jeopardy such is his hunger to take out a rival sniper.
Eastwood’s direction is assured, capturing both Iraq and Texas in an almost blinding vibrancy, but it lacks the scope needed for a film of this ilk. At one point Steven Spielberg was attached to direct the film and, given how he handled the sniper scenes in Saving Private Ryan, you cannot help but wonder what might have been. That being said Eastwood is able to bring a sense of Western tension and loan gunman that has been lacking from some of his recent work.
Miller continues to prove a solid supporting actress in the dotting wife role having done similar work in Foxcatcher. Her performance often acts as the most emotional investment offered here. Cooper meanwhile, who also produced the film, is typically reliable. He’s piled on the muscle to match that of his true life character looking more like a Bradley Hulk than Cooper and his Texan drawl is sometimes so thick you struggle to understand what he’s saying. But he’s an actor that can carry a film and American Sniper is no exception. Stoic for much of the film’s running time the script never allows him to express too much emotion but when he does Cooper reins it in with a smart military trained understatement.
More a chronology of a man who amassed 160 confirmed kills, a US military record, than a bona fide story, American Sniper is often interesting but never quite hits the targets a film of this ilk should.