Thursday, January 8, 2015

Review: American Sniper

by Patrick Bromley
A true story about the deadliest sniper in military history and his tragic, untimely death sounds fascinating. Too bad American Sniper is not that story.

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.
American Sniper employs what Film Crit Hulk is fond of calling (and JB is fond of repeating) "ant writing," which he explains as (emphasis his): IT IS AS IF YOU TOOK A MYOPIC, STEP BY STEP EVALUATION EVERYTHING DIRECTLY IN FRONT OF YOU IN A LINE AND THAT'S HOW TOLD THE STORY "Well first I stepped here. And then here. Then here. Then here."' It presents a succession of repetitive events: Chris Kyle engages in combat in Iraq, Chris Kyle returns home. His wife expresses concern. Sometimes he calls her from Iraq, where she again expresses concern. This is the extent of Sienna Miller's role. Sometimes we get to see him working as a sniper; often we do not. He comes home, he goes back, he comes home, etc. Very little changes except the number of kids he has, including one scene with a baby prop that's so fake and distracting it speaks volumes as to how little of a shit director Clint Eastwood gives at this point.

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.
There are some stickier ethical questions presented by the movie, but I choose not to get into those. It is incredibly one-sided in its portrayal of the Iraq War, but I suppose that is because it is being told from the perspective of that one side. More difficult is some of the imagery, such as a young kid having a hole blown through his chest as Kyle's first on-screen kill. It is presented indifferently, as just another reality of war. I can understand that. But the visual is so upsetting and so transgressive -- and presented first in a long series of on-screen deaths -- that I have to wonder why Eastwood wasn't interested in exploring it with any more depth. The kid is armed; it's a "him or us" scenario, so we understand why Kyle has to take the shot. But nothing further than that is explored. Even if, as Cooper says, we're to read the movie as a character study, the moment fails to reflect anything about Kyle's character except that he gets annoyed when another soldier wants to high five him. So I guess he's upset.

Finally, Kyle comes home for the last time and (SPOILERS FOR REAL LIFE) is murdered by a fellow soldier suffering from PTSD. Lest you think that this is actually dramatized on screen or given weight, it is not. The screen fades to black as Kyle leaves for the day (the last of his life) and we're told his fate via a title card. Please understand that I'm not asking to see a reenactment of Kyle's murder on screen. Perhaps it was avoided out of respect to his family. Perhaps it was avoided because the movie wants to look at his heroism and doesn't want us to leave the theater remembering his final tragic moments. But while its inclusion may be seen as in some way necessary -- because it happened, after all -- its treatment as little more than a footnote robs it of the impact that it should have. We should be devastated; instead, we're left with just a feeling of "Wait, what?"
I find myself in the same precarious position I was in a year ago when trying to talk about 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.


Kino Notabi said...

Man, two bleh films in a row. Maybe the quality has something to do with their presumable close productions? I have a theory that postproduction of Jersey Boys and main production of American Sniper were occurring simultaneously.

Alex Lawson said...

A big year for Clint, and a big year for "wasted Sienna Miller," who was dazzlingly present in Foxcatcher.

John Murphy said...

Sadly, it sounds like "a bad year for Clint" is more like it. :(

Adam Riske said...

Good call on Sienna Miller. I like her a lot when she's given the opportunity to do something other than play a stand-in.

Alex Hope said...

It's been a bad few years for Clint.

Does anyone remember Hereafter? Anyone... nope thought not.

Steve said...

Totally bummed to read this... I was really looking forward to it. Maybe since you have lowered my expectations so much, I will walk out of the theater pleasantly surprised...or maybe not.

Kathy said...

Possible that they couldn't get more specific about the subject of the film because they didn't like the truth.

"Chris Kyle, a US navy Seal from Texas, was deployed to Iraq in 2003 and claimed to have killed more than 255 people during his six-year military career. In his memoir , Kyle reportedly described killing as “fun”, something he “loved”; he was unwavering in his belief that everyone he shot was a “bad guy”. “I hate the damn savages,” he wrote. “I couldn’t give a flying fuck about the Iraqis.” He bragged about murdering looters during Hurricane Katrina, though that was never substantiated."

Gil said...

Hereafter was rough. I wasn't a big fan of J. Edgar either.

Adam Riske said...

Pretty sure I own the one copy produced of HEREAFTER on Blu-Ray.

Mr. guest said...

But how was "kirk cameron saves christmas"?

Rik said...

I read "a wasted Sienna Miller" as "completely drunk Sienna Miller" which seemed like it would have been interesting. Alas.

Gaith said...

I'm an active-duty US service member, Patrick, and, so long as they do so thoughtfully, I very much encourage anyone to grapple with issues of military morality, and to speak/write their mind.

That said, maybe Eastwood didn't dramatize Kyle's death because (from what I can tell from Wikipedia) the shooter's trial is still pending? I don't know what the movie's title cards say, but if said shooter was experiencing a PTSD-induced flashback at the time of the incident, as Leo told Josh in The West Wing, he may not have been fully conscious - in which case it may well not have been a murder at all, so I gotta respectfully recommend, P-Broms, that you edit your language in that regard.

The New Yorker had a big story on this whole thing last year, detailing how much mental agony the shooter had allegedly been in in the weeks prior to the incident - an incident which happened because Kyle apparently thought taking a bunch of PTSD sufferers out into the woods with guns to work out their issues was a great idea. Even before hearing this story, I'm pretty sure I would've advised a different sort of treatment - and as a film fan, I gotta say that completely ignoring this glaring irony is kinda nuts.

Chaybee said...

I just watched American Sniper and it was what I though it would be and I really liked it. Cooper killed it in this! Forget the accent that was dead on, his mannerisms, demeanor and even walk is nothing like I've seen from him. Sienna Miller is awful and almost unrecognizable (not in a good way) but is there to add emotion to an almost emotionless, stone performance from Cooper which is exactly what it should have been.

The directing is fine. It's mediocre and bland but not terrible. That's Eastwood though. Look at his filmography as a director. It's 80% mediocre to woeful. I would say this is more towards one of his better ("Bird" being the best in my opinion, which is still only a notch above mediocre).

The supporting cast is great in this! Too bad you can't tell who is who at all. I was really struggling to remember character names and who was playing who. That's a big problem with this film. The score is also terrible. Fucking Morricone and Eastwood could have done something memorable, instead, they compose some elevator music to go with a four tour war movie.

All in all I dug it. I had looooooow expectations so that helps a lot. The battle scenes are intense and as I mentioned, Cooper kills it. Entertaining movie yet unimportant (some would argue it should be important because of the subject; I know nothing about the real story so I went into this watching "a movie") and will most likely be unmemorable.

Chaybee said...

Sorry, the actual score was done by Joseph S. DeBeasi, not Morricone and Eastwood as I thought I saw. I'm a bit more forgiving since it's not Ennio, although it's still invisible and unoriginal.

J.M. Vargas said...

Eastwood is a classic case of a once-great director that has hung around too long and lost touch with what makes a movie tick. For a comparable example of an equally-old director that can still deliver what audiences crave just look at Ridley Scott. The former is the rule and the latter the exception, though on a technical and financial level (delivering reasonably well-made movies on time and within budget) Clint's streamlined efficiency (his movies don't make too much money but by Hollywood standards they're reasonably cheap) and Ridley's mixed records ("The Counselor" was a huge bomb, "Exodus" is a hit but cost a ton to make) adds up to both men not hurting for work.

As early as eight years ago Eastwood was still delivering quality work with "Letters from Iwo Jima" (and just one year prior he won a deserved Best Director Oscar for "Million Dollar Baby"). This is what troubled me more than anything while watching "American Sniper" Christmas Day in one of NYC's biggest theaters with a sold out crowd. How can the director that made Japanese soldiers three-dimensional humans we understood and learned to appreciate make a movie in which both the lead and the hundreds of Arabs he and his fellow American soldiers slaughter are such two-dimensional stock types? If not for Bradley Cooper committing to his role so much he carries whatever goodwill "American Sniper" generates this would be an embarrassing display of brainless black & white thematic filmmaking (Americans: good and pure; Arabs: evil and to be feared).

Tarantino and Patrick might be right, most old directors just plain lose whatever made them great in their youth and middle age (with notable exceptions like the aforementioned R. Scott). "American Sniper" (which most of the country hasn't even seen yet, it opens wide next week) isn't Clint's worst-directed movie, but given the subject matter and AAA committed performance by Bradley Cooper it's his most disappointing.

Brian Sager said...

Just got around to watching AS this past weekend, and WOW, what a terrible film. Aside from a mostly-strong performance from Cooper, I can find few things positive to say about this. Dull script, dull direction, dull performances. I think the problem with adapting a movie about Kyle's life is that he never really had that defining moment. He's known for doing 1 thing, 160 times. The movie has to go out of it's way to invent an Iraqi nemesis (who, btw, fights for both the Sunis and Shiites, which is like fighting for both the US military and Nazi Germany), but it's handled so poorly. Unfortunately, the most cinematic moment of his life, were his last moments. I'm sure Eastwood omitted that out of respect for him and his family, but that's a mistake. His family may not like it, but it's integral to his story.

This has to be among the worst movies ever nominated for best picture. A better version of this movie would be Kyle shooting people set to a musical montage for 90 minutes.

Unknown said...

In my opinion American Sniper is a damn wasted opportunity. There is definitly a story in Chris Kyle's life, so why not make a movie out of that rather than out of his blown up book? Too sad, too bad. Eastwood was way too close to the family and way too much in favor for Kyle to make this movie work - which is itself mediocre if you're blind to the factual errors. But I'll give Cooper his very good performance.

Look at Powerstroke Injectors Ford said...

Awesome movie even though some of the scenes gave me some flash backs it was a great movie. I would recommend this movie to everyone with out missing a heartbeat.