‘American Sniper’ isn’t a terrible movie, just a tremendously obvious one. It’s based on a true story, so the awards bait stink hangs in the air of every scene. That true story is about Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, so patriotism and celebration of warfare are built so deeply into the movie’s DNA that they even dominate the title. From there, it’s easy to predict the mixture of sentimentality and gritty war zone action that will define absolutely everything about everything about the movie.
It’s also worth noting that directing duties went to Clint Eastwood, ensuring that the final product is dull in the most professional manner possible. Based on all of these qualities, the film plays out exactly as you’d expect and it’s possible to predict your feelings about it with pinpoint accuracy before even buying a ticket.
Bradley Cooper, a Texas accent and an underbite star as Chris Kyle. The story opens with Kyle enduring Basic Training while finding the love of his life (Sienna Miller, whose character is so paper-thin that it’s not even worth naming her). They wed shortly after he graduates from sniping school. In a mixture of truth, dramatic irony and narrative contrivance, Kyle then ships out for his first tour of duty in Iraq immediately. Once there, he quickly becomes a legend amongst the troops. He’s an expert sniper, perfect protection, a daring soldier, and just an old-fashioned good friend to have on the battlefield.
When Kyle returns home, he experiences undying emotional support and love from his wife, yet just can’t shake the fact that buying toilet paper at Target lacks the excitement of warfare. Three more tours of duty follow, each more death-defying than the last. Every time Kyle returns home, a little less of the man his wife married remains. It’s troubling, to say the least. Thankfully, as every character in the movie voices to the point of tedium, Kyle is just such a gosh darn great guy that he’s able to overcome any obstacle. That includes Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and peacetime malaise just as much as it does overcoming impossible odds with a gun in his hands.
The tricky thing about responding to a movie like ‘American Sniper’ is what it represents. Obviously, Kyle is a stand-in for a certain brand of honorable war hero and a tragically traumatized victim in America. Both are complicated and enduring themes, and it’s difficult to dislike the film for exploring them when they’re so relevant. And yet, while those themes might be perpetually in need of respect and examination in the real world, they’ve become very tired dramatic devices. Even though this is a true and contemporary story, the film feels at least a few decades out of date. Credit Clint Eastwood for much of that flaw. That guy has been trapped in a time capsule since at least the 1990s. He seems to have no sense of how the world has evolved around him, and anyone who enters his orbit is far too intimidated to say anything about it.
Aside from the Iraq setting, a few gory action sequences and some salty language, ‘American Sniper’ could have easily been released in the 1950s. The enemies (particularly a recurring evil Iraqi sniper) are so one-dimensional that it would be an insult to cartoons to say that they come off as cartoonish. There’s no gray in the morality of the war onscreen, and the film feels insultingly simplistic to both American and global audiences.
Now, it could be said that, because the story comes from the perspective of a single soldier, that limited view is an accurate reflection of his actual experiences. Well, fair enough. However, that doesn’t mean an outside view couldn’t be acknowledged, nor does it excuse the way Sienna Miller’s wife character is painted as a whiny shrew whose life and personality consist only of how they relate to her husband. The writing for her character is pathetic given that the real Kyle widow was alive to participate in the film’s production.
Cooper fares far better as Kyle, and he even disappears into the role just a little bit. Despite being tremendously famous, Cooper rarely gets the respect he deserves as an actor. His work here is quite strong. Sadly, the movie itself just doesn’t deserve his efforts.
Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity in ‘American Sniper’ is its ending. I won’t get into specifics, but it should be common knowledge that Chris Kyle is no longer with us and his death did not occur on the battlefield. The facts of how and why he died are undeniably fascinating. In fact, a far more interesting film could and should have been made exclusively based on Kyle’s life after he returned from Iraq the last time. That portion of his life is included here, but feels crammed in almost as an afterthought in favor of turning the movie into yet another story of a good man’s troubling Boy’s Own tale of war. That decision likely falls entirely onto Eastwood.
This movie is a monument to Eastwood’s outdated politics, workmanlike approach to directing, and dedication to forms of filmmaking that went extinct around the time that his acting career took off. Does the movie work as a pedestrian rah-rah-Americana war picture? Sure, I suppose. But do we really need those movies anymore? I’m not so sure about that.