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American Sniper

I’m going to set aside most of my political opinions about the war in Iraq, and the American military in order to write a review of “American Sniper.”  I’m going to accept the premises that the movie puts forward — that the war is justified, that our troops were fighting to protect their friends and family back home, and that they were fighting against savages who had to be stopped by any means possible – because those are the premises the movie puts forward and asks me to believe. To criticize the movie because I don’t agree with them would be like criticizing the Harry Potter movies because I don’t believe children can fly around on brooms.

Bradley Cooper absolutely transformed himself to play legendary sniper Chris Kyle. It’s hard to believe this beefy, monosyllabic bullrider is being played by the same actor who wore a football jersey through most of “Silver Linings Playbook.” He looked like the opposite of a football player there, and certainly not a guy you would want on a rooftop with a high-powered rifle. But he embodies the character completely here, disappearing into the role. I liked Cooper as an actor before, and was impressed with his transition from “The Hangover” to much more complicated films and roles; I have a ton of respect for him as an actor now.

“American Sniper” is told as the story of a young man who could be almost any young man in America. While Chris Kyle was the best at what he did and has become a legendary and revered figure in military circles in America, director Clint Eastwood seems to be making every effort to keep his origin story as generic as possible. He’s a rodeo rider in Texas without much direction; he likes to drink and carouse, but knows how to treat a lady with respect. I imagine he is what every red state American wants their son to grow up to be; good character, humble and self-effacing, good manners, not much interest in book-learning, would rather be outside hunting or working on a car. He loves God, his country, and his family, though not necessarily in that order.  He goes to church and carries around a Bible he doesn’t read too often or take too seriously. He’s a good kid, and he’ll make a great soldier and make his family proud.

 When he sees the planes crash into the twin towers, he immediately heads down to the recruitment office and signs up to be a Navy SEAL. He’s older than all the other recruits, but too tough to quit. He has an aptitude for sharpshooting and so becomes a sniper.  He marries his sweetheart (Sienna Miller) and gets her pregnant right before heading to Iraq for his first tour.
The combat scenes in “American Sniper” are well-directed, tight and logical, with never a hint of confusion or ambiguity.  When Kyle has to shoot a little boy, it’s clear as day that the kid is carrying a grenade and walking towards a tank envoy. The bad guys are really, really bad; one of them uses a hand drill to torture a kid in the middle of the street to make an example of him. Kyle calls them savages, and though in my mind that’s the dirtiest of words, everything on the screen reinforces that characterization.
Kyle serves four tours of duty, and between tours, things are not good.  He’s clearly suffering from PTSD, and he’s a hard man to be around. Depicting the psychological cost of combat has become a must-have in any and all war movies for the last twenty years, and Eastwood doesn’t spend any energy looking for new ways to portray it.  Miller gets one note to play from the moment he first deploys until the end of the film: the nagging wife who threatens to leave her hero husband unless he figures out how to be present with his family and put the war behind him.  “Sniper” would be a better movie if, in just one scene, someone besides the wife — a brother, or father, perhaps — would confront our hero about his PTSD and encourage him to seek help.  It shouldn’t be 100% the wife’s job, but in the movies, it almost always ends up that way.
I had a ton of questions about the climactic scene in “American Sniper,” the one in which he comes face-to-face (in a sniper sense) with the main bad guy.  I talked to several people who know more about military strategy than I do, including one veteran of the Iraq war.  Without giving too much away, and spoiling the movie for those who haven’t seen it, I come away convinced that our hero’s decision at the climactic moment was somewhat less than heroic — questionable at best, selfish and reckless at worst. And yet it fits with everything that comes before and after it.  II’m sure not everyone will see it that way, and I’m not at all sure it’s the way Eastwood intent, but if you view that act the way I do, then “American Sniper” is about one man’s descent into the personal horrors of war.  He starts out fighting for his country, motivated by patriotism and an honest, noble desire to protect those he loves.  But by the end, he is fighting for his own reasons, anxious only to exorcise his own personal demons and achieve some peace of mind, even if it comes at great cost to those around him, those he’s supposed to be protecting.
(For the record, the scene I’m talking about, while it is central to the movie, is entirely fictional and not in Chris Kyle’s autobiography.  I’m scrutinizing the actions and choices of a movie character, not the actual soldier he was based on.)
Cinematically, that makes “American Sniper” a better, more interesting movie; dynamic characters are always more interesting than static heroes. I wish Eastwood would have allowed that kind of ambiguity filter through the movie a bit more; as it stands, it’s kind of a confusing scene, because everything else is handled in such a black and white, cut and dry fashion. (The way the ending is filmed, in particular, would leave any audience to believe that the main character was a hero, even if the main character had been Hannibal Lecter.) From scene to scene, “American Sniper” is a well-directed film, and in parts, represents the views and feelings of a good chunk of the American population better than almost anything you can find on the big screen.  But when I put all the pieces together, I find some surprising jagged edges in key places, and I’m not at all sure that’s intentional.  As a result, “Sniper” leaves me puzzled, wondering, and wanting more.  It doesn’t feel quite complete.
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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

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