Review: Eastwood's 'American Sniper' Hits Hammy, Cliched Target
by Jeremy Kirk
January 16, 2015
If you're wondering whether or not Clint Eastwood has any new tricks under his hat, you may be disappointed with his latest outing, American Sniper. Not so much a war movie as it is war-movie cliches holding hands, the biopic on Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, based on his autobiography, is doing a disservice to the very real accomplishments the man achieved. Perhaps the simplest, most straight-forward, no-nuance technique was a way of honoring the American hero. Unfortunately it results in the opposite, giving us the hammy and obtuse Eastwood with which watchers of his work have become all too familiar. Contrary to the obvious pun, the film actually hits its mark. It's just Eastwood's mark we're watching.
Bradley Cooper stars as Kyle, a Texas bull-rider who signs up for the Navy SEALs after his girlfriend cheats on him and, oh yeah, terrorist attacks on the US Embassy. The first bits of American Sniper read like a famous country song, but Ol' Clint isn't stopping there. Kyle meets and falls head-over-heels for another girl (played by Sienna Miller), September 11 happens somewhere in there, and the newly graduated SEAL is shipped off to fight the Iraq War. From there Kyle's story grows into legend, as he becomes the most successful sniper with the highest kill-count in United States history.
Jason Hall adapted the screenplay from Kyle's book without a shred of subtlety or artistic voice. This is Kyle's story, plain and simple, and it's difficult to throw negative comments at a screenplay adapted from such a real life individual. Any commentary or cynicism thrown at the events depicted is going after Kyle and his legacy. While that isn't stopping some critics, I feel it's necessary to separate the two.
Hall's work does seem the most Eastwood-friendly. Clint isn't exactly afraid of on-the-nose dialogue or ham-fisted melodrama. For years the stories he directs have grown steadily blunted, as if the artistic edge and need for subtextual identity wasn't important any longer. That doesn't mean American Sniper has absolutely nothing to say. It knows precisely what information it wants to get across to its audience, and it delivers that message with blunt-force precision.
That being said, it doesn't stop American Sniper from delivering some tidbits of solid, military action. There are a few tension-filled sequences, Eastwood able to handily bring suspense to the table even when Kyle is long distances from the heart of the action. It's never as realistic or as suspenseful as something like The Hurt Locker, probably the most appropriate comparison you can make with this film. American Sniper, however, doesn't pull off the same level of execution when it comes to the soldier's difficulties at home. Kyle struggles when he's back with his wife and, now, family and vice versa. It's all there on screen but without the weight of emotion or even the same sincerity.
As much as American Sniper wants you to believe in the truth behind the events it shows us, there's a falsity that runs through every frame of Eastwood's film. Those brief moments during the action where Eastwood hints at his ability to still shine makes it rougher to push through. The cliches and dramatic crutches on which the film rests are too noticeable. It all comes across as faux-American spirit, the fist-pumping, rah-cheering patriotism of which much of the country grew sick still bleeds through in Eastwood's aesthetic. Again, this may be an appropriate tone for the story of this man's life. That doesn't make it good cinema.
What does make it worthwhile cinema is the pair of lead performances Eastwood has on display. Cooper seems to grow strong and stronger with each role he takes on. While the part of Chris Kyle may seem pretty standard for the actor, there's a certain amount of nuance Cooper gives to the whole project that isn't found elsewhere. Likewise, Sienna Miller more than holds her own in every scene she shares with Cooper. She becomes such a driving force with her portrayal of Taya Renae Kyle that you wish we had as much time with her as we do her husband. If American Sniper works in the slightest - and that's clearly up for some heavy debate - the co-lead performances are where the bulk of its pro arguments have to be made.
Unfortunately the film's good will begins and ends there, a sampling of solid, acting work surrounded by a gray mass of obvious, nationalistic pride. American Sniper dribbles its story out in the easiest, most typical of ways. That's to say nothing of the end to Chris Kyle's story, Hall and Eastwood choosing to wrap it all up with text on the screen, telling us rather than showing us. I, for one, had no idea what happened to Kyle, and the usage of title cards to explain it all seemed more like a cheap shot to the groin than a heartfelt and tasteful tribute. But, hey, it's the easy way, the Eastwood way, and with American Sniper, you can't say the director missed his mark.