‘American Sniper’ Review: Missing the Mark

'American Sniper'

Movie Rating:

2.5

‘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.

38 comments

  1. Drew

    This review reads as if you pulled every one of these thoughts out of my head. I was really disappointed with this one. And I even tempered my expectations, because of everything that you note in the first paragraph.

    It’s pretty bad when you’re let down, even after lowering your expectations. This certainly wasn’t the worst film of the holiday season, but for me, it was the most disappointing.

    • Chris B

      Damn, I had huge hopes for Inherent Vice last night and wound up being pretty underwhelmed. This is one movie I’ve been anticipating for awhile….hopefully it’s not a let-down as well…

      • Drew

        How in the HELL were you underwhelmed by ‘Inherent Vice’?!?!?! (Extra question marks and exclamation points are for exaggeration). 🙂

        • Chris B

          Hahaha now don’t get me wrong, it had great performances, some funny dialogue, a great score etc. and I’m a huge fan of PTA, I love Boogie Nights, Magnolia an Punch-Drunk Love and I think There Will Be Blood and The Master are great (I’ve never actually seen Hard Eight). The problem I had with Inherant Vice was the overly convoluted plot. There were too many storylines, characters, etc. that after while I just became emotionally disenaged. I was loving it for the first 30-45 minutes and then it all just became too much. I know Phil stated in his review there was no way to keep track if what was happenning and that was “part of the fun”and I agree with that statement to a certain extent but only for a certain period of time. Eventually, it just caused me to lose an emotional connection. It was just too fucking much. I can usually follow twisty plots pretty well, this one reminded me of The Big Lebowski or Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in that it just became more and more complex until after while I lost sense of why certain conversations were even taking place.

          I had huge hopes for this movie, and I admire PTA for pushing te boundries of conventional storytelling in cinema. I really wanted to love it but can’t muster much affection for it. I will revisit it on BD though, maybe digging deeper with a few repeat viewings will yield better results.

          • I’m with you, Chris. Inherent Vice isn’t nearly the film that it has the potential to be. It’s no wonder that the box office is down drastically from Anderson’s usual films.

            Having said that, I personally loved American Sniper. Don’t lose hope. It’s not perfect, but it’s extremely honest and straight-forward. My biggest complaint is the occasional sensationalization (is that even a word?). Having watched it with a friend who recently returned from the Middle East, the way that it hit him wasn’t all that different from how WWII vets described watching Saving Private Ryan. This is easily Eastwood’s best film since Letters From Iwo Jima.

  2. Steven

    This review has the stench of a lift-winger all over it. Something that is patriotic is seen as a lackluster movie. I guess if people were burning the US flag, calling America racist or pandering to the regressive social policies of the fringe left, this would have received 5 stars. As you stated it wouldn’t be outdated politics, instead it will be a regurgitation of what is shown from our trustworthy media.

    Review: .5 out 5 stars

    • Drew

      Of course it was. There’s always going to be a subset of the Academy — the steak eaters — that will vote for films like this. They voted for it for all of the reasons that Phil mentions in his review, not because they actually believe it’s the best film. To the steak eaters, it’s more about what a film represents than the actual quality of the film.

        • Drew

          Google “Steak eater Oscars” or “Steak eater Academy member.” There’s actually a lot of really interesting information to be found about this particular subset of the Academy. They’re the reason why certain films get nominated, every year.

  3. A NOTE TO ALL TROLLS ATTEMPTING TO BOMBARD THIS POST WITH COMPLAINTS ABOUT THE REVIEW’S ALLEGED POLITICAL BIAS:

    As editor of this blog, I am not deleting your posts because of your political beliefs. I am deleting your posts because you are being assholes. Stop being assholes and I will not need to delete your posts.

    Anyone who wishes to discuss the movie is welcome to, whether you like the movie or dislike it. The comments I’ve deleted are clearly being posted by people who have not actually seen the movie, and are probably being directed here from some other political forum.

    This is not a political blog. This is a movie and home theater blog. If you bother to read the text of the review, you will find that Phil’s alleged political bias comes down to him complaining that THE MOVIE presents a one-dimensional view of warfare. If you believe this is inaccurate, please provide examples from THE MOVIE that you feel are more complex than Phil suggests. However, if you have not actually seen the movie, you are not qualified to judge whether Phil’s complaint is justified or not.

    Before you post a comment, please look at yourself in a mirror for a second and ask, “Am I writing this just to be an asshole?” If the answer is yes, DON’T POST THE COMMENT. It’s as simple as that.

    Further assholish comments will continue to be deleted.

    • Phil Brown

      Hi Josh. Thanks for the support. I tried to make it clear in the review that while I recognize the themes and subject matter of this movie are certainly worthy of exploration, I simply don’t feel that this specific movie does a good job of exploring said themes. It’s not about being pro-war or anti-war, just about whether or not I feel the movie works. Apologies for the confusion and chicken wings for all!

  4. Warner

    Thanks Josh for working hard to keep this blog about what it should be. Although I rarely post anything on the blog, I read every day and have come to really enjoy, and mostly agree with the reviews posted here. So keep up the good work Phil 🙂

  5. I saw AMERICAN SNIPER today, and – in my humble opinion – it’s a fantastic film. Bradley Cooper is completely deserving of his Best Actor nod, and the movie (probably Eastwood’s best since MILLION DOLLAR BABY) is worthy of its Best Picture nomination.

    Will all respect to my fellow reviewer here, I didn’t find any part of the film dull…it’s well directed, well paced and I’m not sure there’s a wasted moment or bad scene in its 132-minute run time. It’s worth your movie dollar and gets a high recommendation from me.

  6. eric

    I haven’t seen this movie yet, but I look forward to it. The interviews from the actors in the movie seem to focus more on the things that happen when back home and they talk more about soldiers coming back from war more than they talk about the war parts of the movie.

    Bradley Cooper also tells a story about making this film where he asked Eastwood if he could do a second take of a scene and he said “No.” Cooper said “I know I can do that better or a different way.” and Eastwood told him “Its just a movie.”

    All these political comments just remind me why its so hard to get a meaningful movie made and out to mass audiences. Sad.

  7. Chris B

    Saw this last night and while I do think it was pretty solid, I don’t really think it deserved a nom for best picture. Cooper was fanastic and I can see why he picked up the best actor nom but the movie itself felt kind of dated as Phil mentioned.

    Also the editing of the first act felt kind of ofd, it felt like a highlight reel of Kyle’s life as opposed to getting to know an actual character.

    It’s a also a war movie in which it’s kind of difficult to root for any side because it was impossible to forget what a debacle the whole thing was and the fact it should never have happened anyways. That fact can’t help but lessen the enjoyment IMHO.

  8. Chapz Kilud

    I saw American Sniper on IMAX yesterday. I’ve disagreed with Philip on several movie reviews in the past (notably The Equalizer, John Wick). But I completely agree with his review on American Sniper. It felt really outdated. Around the same time last year I saw Lone Survivor. That was much better movie. I definitely see what he meant about Clint Eastwood. Philip was also right about different ways this movie could have gone to make it better, for example with the wife played by Sienna Miller. This is a 1950’s movie.

  9. Lord Bowler

    I saw American Sniper just prior to the weekend, and loved it!

    I don’t know what movie Philip Brown was watching, but I didn’t see most of Philip’s criticisms.

    I had a few nitpics, namely I wish there was more attention paid to the Health Study Kyle did in between his two deployments where his blood pressure skyrocketed when he was home, because of the constant stress of being on guard, while in Iraq it was normal. It was only briefly touched on in the movie and the study did help with treatment of PTSD. That would have done more to show some impact on soldiers after their war is over.

    That said, the movie was great, the flaws in it were very minor. The movie probably could have used an additional 30 minutes to flesh out some of the character development.

    It was not the greatest War picture, but a lot better than most War films. Certainly worthy of 4/5 stars.

  10. Brandon Kolfer

    After watching the movie last night I had to spend time with my family and was trying so hard to come up with the right way to say how underwhelmed I was with the film. I sure wish I had your review handy at the time Phillip. This is exactly how I would describe my feeling about the film.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *