With American Sniper, Clint Eastwood's second movie of 2014 (the first was Jersey Boys), the director continues his slide into total indifference towards filmmaking. While he's often praised for his speed and efficiency during production -- he does one or two takes and moves on, and his style is that he has no style -- I'm starting to think that his methods are not a result of a lack of pretense but rather a disinterest in the movie making process. That's obviously not true -- at 84 years old, he wouldn't still be making movies if he didn't want to still be making movies -- but his technique is really starting to effect the quality of his output. And because of the story he has chosen to tell this time around, American Sniper deserves better.
A jacked-up Bradley Cooper plays Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL from Texas known for being the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history. The film covers his life in fragments, beginning with him learning to hunt as a kid before jumping forward to his joining the military to meeting and raising a family with his wife (a wasted Sienna Miller) while serving four tours of duty in the Iraq War.
That's essentially the story, as screenwriter Jason Dean Hall (adapting Kyle's autobiography) doesn't focus on just a few events, instead giving you an overview of a whole bunch of stuff -- he wants to tell you how to build a clock. Well, that's not entirely fair; most of the movie is set during Kyle's years as a SEAL, though not until we get to see him as a kid learning how to hunt (which has to be in the movie just so we know where he learned how to shoot; otherwise, how could we possibly comprehend his skill? It's biopic midichlorians!) and get a random scene of his girlfriend cheating on him and them breaking up. Unlike the hunting bit, this has no bearing on the story at all, and seems like it's in the movie because someone forgot to edit it out. I guess it explains that he's single when he approaches his future wife Taya in a bar in the next scene, but that could have also been explained by having him be single when he approaches his future wife Taya in the next scene.
The problem with this storytelling is that very little of it actually tells us who Chris Kyle was as a person. We know that he was a hero and a good man. We know that he loved his family and was a brave and gifted soldier. These are all amazing, admirable qualities, and nothing I say should take that away from Kyle, but American Sniper doesn't figure out how to convey any of it outside of the most simplistic ways possible. I heard Bradley Cooper interviewed on The Howard Stern Show earlier this week where he said he and Clint Eastwood were very set on not portraying heroes and villains, nor the rights and wrongs of war (at this, Eastwood fails). Instead, they want only to make American Sniper a character study. I admire the intent -- and it's clear that almost everyone (particularly Cooper) went into this with the best of intentions -- but I have to ask them how they think this movie works as a character study. For as much as the title suggests it will be about the best sniper the military has ever known, there is no attempt to understand what that means -- what kind of person is drawn to that skill, how he's able to be better than anyone (he hunted as a kid?), what it means to do that kind of job. It presents a guy who is brave and decent and tells us he's the best but makes him seem like most of the other brave soldiers the film presents.
Lone Survivor, having to criticize a movie based on a real-life soldier without sounding like I'm criticizing the actual events or, even worse, coming off as "un-American." The truth is that there is no winning with some people, who are going to bristle at the fact that I don't think American Sniper is very good and give me shit simply because it conflicts with their worldview. I have to come to terms with that, because the flip side is that I give a mediocre movie a pass because I'm afraid of the ire it will draw if I do not. Trite as it may sound (and I'm in no way making this about me), that's not why Chris Kyle went to war in the first place.
There is a basic competence to the way American Sniper is put together (except for that goddamn baby...), because at this point that's what Clint Eastwood brings to the table. But this is a story that requires more than basic competence; it requires insight and empathy -- or, if not that, the cold remove of, say, a sniper. Instead, the movie settles for the structural beats and drama of a TV movie. We want to tell ourselves that it's good because we want to honor Chris Kyle's memory, but we have to judge a movie on the thing itself and not on the life it's depicting. The hard truth is that the life story of even a war hero can be made into a mediocre film. Clint Eastwood has seen to that.