A few months ago, in my review of the satirical comedy The Interview, I said that it was the most controversial film of 2014. I stand by that, but if any movie could give it a run for its money, it’s American Sniper. Opening widely this past weekend, Clint Eastwood’s new biopic of Chris Kyle took in $90 million, a number that has shocked everyone to their core. What a tremendous feat for a January release. But people were eager to see American Sniper, so of course they rushed out to see it. But those tobacco-spittin’, gun lovin’, country folk that wanted to see a “Fuck yeah, ‘Merica!” flick about how great the war is and how bad Iraqis are have another thing coming.
The film begins with a riveting sequence (it was the nail-biter featured in the trailer) which shows Kyle (Bradley Cooper, in another standout performance) overlooking a raid by his fellow comrades, and having to decide whether to do questionable acts or not. After he makes a tough decision that results in his first kill as a sniper, his partner grabs him excitedly and laughs. As he did this, the roughneck crowd I was seeing the film with laughed too, clearly ecstatic about Kyle shooting and killing a child. However, they went silent after hearing Chris’ response. “Get the fuck off me,” he says bitingly, staring coldly at the corpse of the child through his scope, shaken by what he has done. That is what American Sniper is.
Now I’ve read my fair share of articles debunking the film’s portrayal of Chris Kyle and those articles always go back to the book in which Kyle (apparently) brags about killing children and says his only regret is that he didn’t kill more people. I understand that this man may not have been the hero that the film portrays him as, but so far as I can tell from Eastwood’s film alone, he was doing his job, which could be considered heroic. The script, however, seems cloudy at times; not in its portrayal of Chris, but in exactly what parts of his life it wants to shine a spotlight on. For the first hour or so, it feels very “Okay, go America!” Later, the film does a shift. Whether it shifts up or shifts down, I’m not so sure. It spends a good while showing Chris’ home life, before and during the war, and those moments work. The stuff back home with Chris’ wife (Sienna Miller) are some of the best, and even though Miller’s performance is hardly what I would consider good, the script does a decent job at bringing her frustrations with Chris to the screen and Cooper’s distanced and PTSD-suffering mind is what brings the film home.
Unfortunately, there isn’t enough of the PTSD stuff to really make a huge impact, as writer Jason Hall and director Clint Eastwood just glaze over it in comparison with the Middle East action. It’s unfortunate because when this film was in the early stages of conception back before Kyle’s death, it was going to focus more on the PTSD element of Kyle’s life. Then his death happened, and it all changed. Gun control came into the picture, and that is, unfortunately, the larger portion of the film’s focusing.
That being said, I’m not being negative about the movie. I liked it. Sure, it could’ve been better and the overall tone does seem to change from time to time, but it’s still good. Bradley Cooper is excellent in the film, completely deserving of his Oscar nomination (even though I prefer Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler). The movie has a few bits of tension, specifically in the opening scene and scenes like it woven throughout. I don’t know if it presents Chris Kyle as a hero unjustifiably or if he was actually a psychotic killer. Something similar happened with Captain Phillips. That film presented Phillips as a hero, but after its release, the members under his command soon came out against it, calling him more of a coward than the film suggested. I don’t like to judge movies by their political stances or true life stories. I review art, and American Sniper is flawed. But it’s entertaining, and it’s Clint Eastwood’s best film since Gran Torino.
Rated R for strong and disturbing war violence, and language throughout including some sexual references
Cast: Bradley Cooper
Writer: Jason Hall
Director: Clint Eastwood
Photo credits: RogerEbert.com, Collider.com, HDWallpapers.com