Movie Review: “American Sniper” (Clint Eastwood, USA 2014)

I went in to this film unsure of what to expect. While Clint Eastwood has been an effective filmmaker and even against type once directed one of the more effective anti-violence films in history in Unforgiven (USA 1992), the public discourse around the film has entirely focused on an argument about whether the real-life basis for the film, Chris Kyle, should be viewed as a psychopathic kill or heroic patriot, with most claiming that the film depicts the latter but then being split on the propriety of that depiction. So, I did not know whether to expect the more thoughtful ruminations on the nature of violence and war that Eastwood has proven capable of providing or a jingoistic romp about the glory of the American soldier. Thankfully, I think the film was closer to the former than the public discussion would suggest, and though it was nowhere near the masterpiece that Unforgiven was, it was still an above-average film that was worth a viewing.

The film tells the story of Chris Kyle, a soldier who was credited with a huge number of kills during four tours of duty in Iraq. However, the film is not so much interested in what Kyle does in Iraq, his training, or even in what makes him such a great soldier. It’s interested in how the Perfect Soldier (which is how he is portrayed) adjusts back to civilian life. It’s a story we’ve seen many times before, but Eastwood tries telling us the story in a different way–breaking up the narrative and having Kyle attempting to adjust during his service.

The biggest problem with the film’s narrative is that, for a film that is about a soldier adjusting to civilian life, it doesn’t explain how he successfully adjusts at all. It seems that just spending time helping other soldiers with their own adjustments, he is magically self-healed, and the actual successful adjustment occurs so quickly and mostly off-screen that it’s almost as though the last act of the film was added post-production against Eastwood’s original plans. The film still holds together as a rumination on the nature of protectiveness, but its narrative is a bit of a mess.

Eastwood’s films have mostly been defined visually by his love of a quiet, brooding type of darkness. He doesn’t use the type of stylized, showy darkness that someone like David Fincher uses–instead, he uses a darkness that comes across more as emptiness and as something far more natural. The darkness doesn’t have sharp edges and isn’t broken by shafts of bright light. Instead, it’s just a darkness that fades into light over time, just like it does in real life.

This film is not any different, except for a couple of scenes, one of which works really well and one of which is horribly inappropriate. First, when Chris Kyle shoots an enemy sniper with a mile-long shot, we get an action-hero slow-motion shot of the bullet on its way toward the enemy, a shot that seems wholly out of place with the rest of the film. Then, it’s followed by a beautiful sequence of a battle and escape during a sandstorm, using the sand as a type of enveloping fog of war that emphasizes the confusion and grey area that has occupied the rest of the film. That sequence is a creative use of a look that Eastwood hasn’t exactly used before and he and cinematographer Tom Stern (who has shot all of Eastwood’s films since 2003, I believe) should be proud of that sequence. It makes up for preceding it with a scene that frankly seems like it exists only to praise Chris Kyle in a way that the rest of the film avoids.

Nothing much is required of any of the actors in the film, so no one really has the opportunity to stand out, though they all perform capably with what they are given. Bradley Cooper’s physical transformation in becoming such a giant is going to get a lot of attention (and it most certainly was a ton of work), but Kyle is a character who is so unwilling to show emotion that he never really gets a chance to flex his acting muscles. A blank look of vague disappointment at his brother and a cold, determined stare are essentially the entire performance, which doesn’t amount to much. I will say that the bar scene where he meets his later wife played by Sienna Miller seemed to be relying on a charisma and charm that Cooper simply doesn’t have, but that’s a small matter that doesn’t really detract from his performance. Miller does a good job of avoiding being as annoying as the long-suffering wife character could be, but she also doesn’t have the opportunity to show much.

Overall, it’s a good film–Eastwood has a good eye and it does generally hold together as making one point (protectiveness is only a good quality to a point). However, it’s not a brilliant film. The flaws in the narrative, its general triteness, and the lack of any character depth keep it from making that level. Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, UK/USA 2014) still easily wins best picture of the year for me.

Notes

  • Eastwood doesn’t normally use much music at all in his films and most of it is typically a self-composed score, but that Van Morrison song just seemed way out of place at the wedding. Plus, it was a weird song–it sounded like an incredibly slow version of “Why Must I Always Explain?”
  • Every time someone used the word “overwatch,” all I could think of was X-Com: Enemy Unknown. Yes, I am a nerd.
  • Fathers in movies are really strange in their wanting to explain a general philosophy of life at the dinner table, aren’t they?
  • I had to look it up to find out whether the ending meant that Kyle was murdered by the veteran he was helping or killed accidentally. Am I the only one who wasn’t sure about that from the way the film ended?
  • The sound design should get called out as an excellent aspect of this film that won’t translate to home viewing. It used the bass to make the scenes of Kyle’s sniping incredibly tense and unsettling waiting for him to pull the trigger, and frankly did a better job than the visuals did.
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