American Sniper (2014)

Review #1,129

Director:  Clint Eastwood
Cast:  Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Kyle Gallner
Plot:  Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle's pinpoint accuracy saves countless lives on the battlefield and turns him into a legend.  Back home to his wife and kids after four tours of duty, however, Chris finds that it is the war he can't leave behind.

Genre:  Action / Biography / Drama
Awards:  Won 1 Oscar - Best Sound Editing.  Nom. for 5 Oscars - Best Picture, Best Leading Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing.
Runtime:  132min
Rating:  M18 for strong and disturbing war violence, and language throughout including some sexual references.

“If you think that this war isn't changing you you're wrong.  You can only circle the flames so long.”

Forget about the hoo-hah surrounding the use of a fake baby in a key dramatic scene, or the divided politics centering on the message behind this film, because stripped down as a war biopic, American Sniper is, at its best, a generic, by-the-numbers account of the most lethal American sniper is their military history. 

Chris Kyle is the man in question, played by Bradley Cooper in a decent but not superb performance.  I'm still in the opinion that Timothy Spall of Mr. Turner (2014) ought to have nabbed that final nomination slot for Best Leading Actor rather than Cooper. 

In any case, while it might have surged as a surprise nominee for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay because of the wave of fervent politics, there is no question that director Clint Eastwood is somewhat back in business after the lackluster critical response to Hereafter (2010), J. Edgar (2011) and Jersey Boys (2014).

Eastwood's direction is assured, and despite his economical and remarkably efficient style of shooting, the film comes out as solid as a whole.  There are enough battle scenes to whet the appetite of genre fans, and the violence is hard-hitting, some sickening as well.  The technical qualities of American Sniper are top-notch, in particular the sound editing and mixing. 

What is lacking is a screenplay that truly soars; it is lacking in imagination and tells Kyle's story in a flat, straightforward way.  The film alternates between scenes of Kyle's time in Iraq, and with his wife (Sienna Miller) back home.  This to-and-fro forms the backbone of the film's structure, its rigidity more bane than boon.  After a while, it gets repetitive, as if the filmmakers are more interested in telling Kyle's story than letting his story tell itself. 

As a war film, American Sniper puts us directly into the war zone.  Despite the uncertainty that the soldiers are thrown in, we have a sense of what is happening or going to happen.  The cinematography by long-time Eastwood favourite Tom Stern is mostly polished and easy for the eye.  This is what I would call a clean war film, a far cry from gritty, disorienting war movies like Ridley Scott’s Black Hawn Down (2001), which I think is still the barometer for gauging war pictures set in contemporary times. 

There's much to be excited about American Sniper – you probably won't find a more action-oriented Best Picture nominee in recent years.  But I wished the film meant something more than just the worshiping of a hero, and the defense of American patriotism. 

Verdict:  A contemporary war film with such generic, by-the-numbers treatment that while assuredly directed by Eastwood, doesnt feel interesting enough. 


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