Clint Eastwood pumps out movies like he works on an assembly line. He moves so fast that he had two films hit theaters in 2014, and while there’s nothing wrong with a workmanlike approach – especially if there’s some obvious passion in the final product – the working man is going to have some off days from time to time. Unfortunately, American Sniper was made on one of those days. The clunky bio pic has a strong performance from Bradley Cooper, but even he can’t make up for this misguided and underwhelming effort.
Based on the late Chris Kyle’s life and autobiography, American Sniper shows Kyle’s (Cooper) life as a son, husband, father, and, most famously, America’s deadliest sniper. Screenwriter Jason Hall (Paranoia) has written less of a film about Kyle than a series of CliffsNotes. American Sniper opens with Kyle questioning whether he should shoot a suspicious mother and child in Iraq, and the way this predicament plays out is shown over the course of the film. Then the film cuts to his childhood, where we see Kyle’s religious father teaching him how to shoot and telling him about the evils of the world. We learn how this sticks with Kyle, but it’s not terribly vital to the film or the character.
That trend repeats throughout as we wonder why Eastwood and Hall have made certain choices at the detriment of the film’s potential drama. We see why Kyle enlisted, how he met his wife Taya (Sienna Miller), and spend time on his days as a rodeo rider, but little of it is in service of an actual story. Why they thought these minor character elements were more important than Kyle’s death is beyond baffling and, arguably, disrespectful. The end of his life actually would’ve fit into the body of the film. It would have been tough to watch, which is probably why it’s not in the movie, and instead we’re left with a sugarcoated choice and a poor structural decision.
This is a case where the director either isn’t serving the material or is simply not up to the task. What’s particularly strange about this misfire is, thematically-speaking at least, it’s not far off from Eastwood’s masterpiece, Unforgiven. The violence is brutal in that western, and he skillfully conveyed the toll it took on the characters. Kyle’s dilemma is familiar to that film’s – people may see him as “The Legend,” but he became so by taking lives.
Kyle is visibly uncomfortable when praised for his marksmanship. In one scene Kyle is complimented on a kill by the kind of person who cheers during war movies, and he understandably reacts negatively. Eastwood himself even comes off as the ‘rah-rah’ type with one kill that the filmmaker completely glorifies. There’s a slo-mo CG bullet and all, and it’s the kind of grandeur you’d expect Kyle himself to want to stay as far away as possible.
All these problematic choices leave Cooper out to dry. Last year the actor gave his most fun, visceral and nuanced performance in American Hustle, and while his character here is a complete 180-turn he pulls it off fantastically. Kyle is a man of few words, but Cooper conveys the sense of the pain and discomfort he experiences, both at war and at home. It’s subtle work in a terribly unsubtle film, and that’s something becoming too common in Eastwood’s work.
When Kyle’s crying newborn baby isn’t given immediate care by a nurse, he freaks out and starts banging on the window – Cooper could have made it an unsettling moment, but Eastwood drains the life out of this scene with his intrusive use of sound. Eastwood’s obvious choices to highlight what these performances are already telling us frequently undercut the film. Miller – who’s a fine actress that completely disappeared in this year’s Foxcatcher — is wasted. There’s not a lot for her to do besides express worry when Chris is and isn’t home. It’s a one-note role in a mostly one-note movie.
Eastwood’s American Sniper rarely digs under the surface of Kyle’s story. It’s all technically competent – with the exception of a laughably fake baby – but lifeless. Kyle’s life could have made for a challenging, brutal and inspiring story, but not in Eastwood’s hands.
The Upside: Bradley Cooper’s performance; an effective piece of tension involving a kid and a rocket launcher; the opening scene
The Downside: A slack script; pulls punches; Eastwood’s direction; the ending
On The Side: Steven Spielberg left the project over budget issues.