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American Sniper: A Review

***** WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS!!! THIS IS YOUR ONE AND ONLY SPOILER ALERT!!****

 

American Sniper, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper, is the story of the late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, and is loosely based on his book American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History.  The film follows Chris Kyle's exploits on the battlefield in Iraq and his struggles with his family and PTSD back on the homeland.

I admit that after seeing the trailer for American Sniper I was excited to see the film. The trailer was really well made and brought with it a palpable tension. But, as with many films, the trailer is considerably better than the actual film. The film itself, just like the trailer, starts off with Chris Kyle prone atop a building in Iraq, contemplating whether or not he should use his sniper rifle to shoot a young boy and woman who threaten US Marines with a Russian grenade off in the distance. The film then deviates from the trailer and we go into  extended flash back scenes which show Kyle's boyhood, his young adult life, his work as a cowboy, his joining the Navy, his SEAL training, his meeting his wife and then his wedding. This is all shown to us in order to give us context for who Chris is and how he got to be that way. After twenty minutes of this exposition, we come back to Kyle atop the roof with his sniper rifle and his pending decision. He shoots and kills both the boy and his mother, his first ever kills. 

Bradley Cooper stars as Chris Kyle and is as good as he's ever been. He fully inhabits the role from top to bottom. His physicality, his Texas drawl and his energy are all spot on. Cooper's performance, without question, carries the film. There are two scenes in particular, where Cooper rises above his already very good performance to be truly transcendent. The first scene is where he has another Iraqi boy in his sniper sights as the boy picks up an RPG and points it at unsuspecting US troops. Kyle talks to himself telling the kid to drop the weapon, he doesn't want to kill another child. Just as the boy is aiming the RPG and Kyle readies to squeeze the trigger, the boy drops the weapon and runs off. Cooper's use of breath once he no longer has to decide whether to shoot or not, is brilliant. He lets out a guttural grunt of relief at being spared the damage to his psyche and soul that most assuredly would have come with killing another child, justified or not. The second scene is when Chris has returned from the war for the last time but has not told his family yet. His wife calls his cell phone and Chris answers sitting by himself in a bar in the states. He is detached and shut down, but his wife Taya tells him his kids miss him and want to see him, and once again Cooper masterfully uses his breath to show the torment and grief that lives deep in Kyle's soul, as he lets out an uncontained weep and wail and tells Taya that he is coming home. These are easily the two best scenes in the film and are highlights of not only the film, but of Bradley Cooper's career. That is the good news about American Sniper. The bad news is that the rest of the film never lives up to the at-times stellar work Bradley Cooper does in it. Sadly, the film never rises above being a standard biopic and run-of-the-mill war movie. Besides Cooper's strong performance, there is nothing remarkable about the film at all. Visually the film is dull and generic. The script is tedious and unoriginal, the dialogue stilted and occasionally cringe-worthy and the supporting actors are, for the most part, considerably below par. The end result is the film looks rushed and cheap.

For any war movie, the battle scenes need to shine in order for the film to distinguish itself. With American Sniper, the battle scenes all look flat, stagnant and lack any texture at all. The battle scenes look like something you'd see any night of the week on an episodic television show. When you consider some of the great war films that have been made, whether it be Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Saving Private RyanThe Thin Red Line or Black Hawk Down, just to name a few, and how visually creative, powerful and unique those films are, American Sniper is so visually listless as to be embarrassing in comparison.

Another thing that needs to be done for a war film to be successful is that it must attach us to a group of warriors and accurately describe and detail the unique camaraderie inherent in the warrior culture. The camaraderie in American Sniper rings false and feels contrived. Eastwood attempts to create a sense of familiarity in order for us to feel we know and care about the other SEALs in Kyle's graduating class and on his team, but we never really connect because these characters are nothing more than indistinguishable blurs. We may care about them as US servicemen, but we don't care about them as individuals or in relationship to Chris Kyle. They end up being simply cannon fodder for the film.

As for the script and the story, director Eastwood chose to use standard Hollywood narrative tools to make the story more palatable for American audiences. For instance, he chose to make an enemy sniper named "Mustafa" Chris Kyle's main foil throughout the battlefield parts of the film. The Mustafa character is only mentioned in passing in one paragraph in Chris Kyle's book, so this is a distinct creative decision to make him such a prominent character in the film. Eastwood also uses a character named "The Butcher" as another foil and symbol for the evil and brutality of America's enemy in the war. In the book, the "Butcher" character doesn't exist at all. Eastwood must have felt he needed to give the enemy in Iraq a face and a name in order to make the Iraq war segments more coherent and digestible for American audiences, not unlike what the Bush administration did in selling the actual war to the American public by making it about "Saddam and Osama". It worked for Bush and company in persuading the American public, but it fails Eastwood because he isn't selling a product (war), he is trying to create a great piece of intimate art and you can't do that by rolling out tired Hollywood storytelling devices, stereotypes and cliches.

There are two other fatal errors by Eastwood in the film. They both deal with endings. The first is the final battle scene and the second is how he ends the film itself. The final battlefield scene is nothing short of an artistic debacle, and seems to be transplanted from another film, and it certainly isn't from Kyle's book. In the sequence, Kyle takes a near impossible sniper shot from over a mile away that takes out his nemesis, Mustafa. Here Eastwood, for the first time in the film, uses a visual effect, a slow motion of the bullet as it leaves the rifle, which feels like it is taken from any number of hokey action movies from the last ten years (I am thinking of Wanted et al).  All of this happens while a sand storm and jihadis close in on Kyle and his squad. In the heat of this dire battle Chris decides to use a satellite phone to call Taya and tell her he is done with war and is coming home.  This sequence is so unwieldy and preposterous as to be comical. It belongs in a Mission: Impossible sequel and not in an allegedly true to life, gritty war movie. And instead of the sandstorm being symbolic of the loss of our national bearings in Iraq, it just comes across as being optically muddled and metaphorically befuddling. There are much more visually coherent and impactful ways to make that important point, which gets lost with Eastwood's approach.

Then there is the final scene of the film, which is very manipulative and grating. In it Kyle says goodbye to his family as he heads out to help a former Marine suffering from PTSD. In reality, this former Marine would tragically shoot and kill Chris Kyle and his friend at a shooting range that day (this is not shown in the film). In the movie scene, Taya Kyle tells Chris how proud she is of him, his kids all love him and he is finally healed and whole. It is obviously a fantasy sequence where everyone gets to say what they had hoped to say and hear what they hoped to hear and Chris' journey is neatly tied up, his martyrdom awaiting him in the form of a shady looking veteran right outside the door. Taya Kyle even has a feeling, call it a sixth sense, about this nefarious fellow waiting for her husband…then we fade to black. I understand wanting to do all that for the family, but this isn't a home movie. The final scene rings so hollow, phony and forced that it could have come right out of a Lifetime movie of the week. It is all too neat and clean and perfect (and also not how events actually played out in real life), so much so that it actually diminishes the impact of Chris Kyle's tragic death. How much more gut wrenching would it be if Taya Kyle didn't get to say all those things to her husband? What if Chris wasn't healed and whole before his death? What if he wasn't finished yet? What if he didn't get to say goodbye to his kids? That would have been a way to really emphasize the shock and horror and tragedy of Chris Kyle being so unexpectedly killed in suburban Texas after having survived four combat tours in Iraq.

Those two critical scenes are not well done, but they aren't the only missteps. There is a scene, the 'garage' scene, where a former Marine approaches Kyle back in America while his car is getting fixed and thanks Kyle for saving him back in Iraq. This could have been a really great scene, and Cooper is wondrously uncomfortable in it which is really interesting to watch, but the other actor's work is so disastrously abominable and false that it is cringe-worthy, and because of that the scene loses any dramatic impact it might have had with even a mediocre actor in that role.

Which brings me to the supporting acting. The work of the supporting actors, particularly in the 'stateside' scenes, is positively dreadful. The actor (whom I will not name) playing Chris Kyle's father is absolutely appalling, and the actor (whom I will also not name) playing Kyle's brother is so unconscionably atrocious it is downright shocking. I kept wondering, why does Chris Kyle's brother not have a Texas drawl when his father and Chris do? Also, why couldn't they find the brother a dress blue uniform that actually fit instead of being three sizes too big? The child actors who play Chris and his brother when they were young, well, they are just children, so at least they have an excuse…but boy, they are not good at acting.

So the question becomes: why are all of these supporting and smaller roles so poorly done? Well, Clint Eastwood is well known for being a minimalist in regards to how many takes he will do. That is a good and bad thing. It is good because when you do fewer takes you stay on schedule, and when you stay on schedule, you stay on budget, and when you stay on budget they let you keep making movies. The bad part is, the acting suffers. So when you are giving great actors, like Sean Penn for instance in Mystic River, or Bradley Cooper in American Sniper, or Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman, Richard Harris and Eastwood himself in Unforgiven, fewer takes, they are able to adjust their approach and keep knocking it out of the park due to their talent and skill, but with lesser talents, their performances flounder and feel rushed and out of rhythm with the rest of the film. The supporting actors in American Sniper are really abysmal, and it is not all their fault. They weren't there everyday getting the feel for the pace of the work (like Cooper was), they weren't getting the rhythm down, they showed up and had to shoot and then did two takes and it was over and they go home. It is a tough gig, but man, regardless of the reason or who is to blame, the supporting cast did a very poor job and the film suffers greatly for it.

There is one exception in regards to the supporting acting, and that is Sienna Miller. Sienna Miller does her best to bring life to the terribly written character of Taya Kyle, Chris Kyle's wife. Her work is admirable, and her American accent is very well done (which is not always the case when the Brits take it on) but the part only allows her to hit two notes: sassy and weepy. It is such a hollow and empty character that Miller should be credited for giving her all to it in a Quixotic attempt to bring some semblance of life to the character, but sadly there just isn't enough there for life to exist.

One issue which may have been a major reason why the film turned out the way it did, is that Eastwood didn't set out to make a great piece of drama, he set out to canonize Chris Kyle. This canonization of St. Chris Kyle, patron saint of 'Merica, is an example of deification, which is an all too common problem when making a biopic, particularly a biopic of someone who has died and who's family is involved in the making of the film. (I have written two previous blog posts on deification which you might find of interest. The Great Man Theory and the Dangers of Deification Part Two, is more relevant to the American Sniper conversation, but feel free to read them both. Links :  The Great Man Theory and the Dangers of Deification Part Two  , The Great Man Theory and the Dangers of Deification Part One  ) I recently read where Chris Kyle's father told Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper that if they dishonored his son he would "bring hell down on them". I understand Mr. Kyle's desire to protect his son's legacy, which has been called into question for some dubious claims his son had made, not the least of which was that he claimed to have punched Jesse Ventura out for making disparaging remarks about SEALs. That tale was adjudicated in the courts and found to be untrue, but Eastwood and Cooper needed to be more loyal to artistic truth than to any man, alive or dead. A great failure of the film is that it really is nothing more than propaganda (propaganda being defined as "the spreading of ideas, information or rumors for the purpose of helping a cause or person"), not just propaganda for a distinct version of America, the war and a certain view of the world, but more specifically it is personal propaganda for Chris Kyle and his 'legacy'. That isn't a bad thing in and of itself, some people love propaganda and some propaganda can be terrifically entertaining. But you can't make great art and propaganda at the same time. So American Sniper is not great art because it is propaganda, and it isn't great propaganda because as a film it isn't even remotely well crafted, either in the directing, the writing, or besides Bradley Cooper, in the acting. 

As a result of this creative 'deification' of Chris Kyle, a lot of really compelling issues and ideas get pushed aside in order to maintain an agreed upon version of Kyle's legacy. For instance, in the film when Chris Kyle is a young boy, his father tells him that there are three types of people in the world..sheep, wolves, and sheep dogs. The sheep are too weak or stupid to protect themselves or even admit that there is evil in the world, the wolves are evil and prey upon the sheep, and the sheep dog protects the sheep from the wolves. Mr. Kyle tells Chris that he raises only sheep dogs. This story propels Chris Kyle through his life and his Navy career. An interesting topic to explore would be that it can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference between a sheepdog and a wolf. If the sheepdog goes to someone else's country and kills people, is he still a sheep dog or is he a wolf? Does Kyle's film nemesis Mustafa think of himself as a sheepdog and Kyle as the wolf? Don't all the people fighting for the enemy tell themselves the same story about sheepdogs and wolves and see themselves as sheepdogs? And don't they have a stronger case for being the sheepdogs since they are the ones being attacked and invaded? That brings up another topic which would be intriguing to explore which is that Chris Kyle never ever has any doubt, be it in his mission or the justness of his cause. His faith is entirely in his own virtue and the righteousness of his country. Something that obviously eluded him in his lifetime, is that this faith, this lack of any doubt, is something he has in common with his enemy. The jihadi, whether it be "The Butcher" or Mustafa, is blindingly positive he is righteous and sees any doubt of the righteousness of his cause, by himself or anyone else, as a crime against his faith, his mission, his God. In the film, Chris Kyle's fellow SEAL (a one-time seminarian) had creeping doubts about the mission in Iraq, and after this SEAL is killed, Chris Kyle tells his wife that the SEAL's doubt in the mission is what got him killed. This conviction and lack of doubt is most assuredly an asset in a war zone, but how well does that certitude translate to peace time and a normal, functioning family life? That would have been a fascinating issue to explore.

Someone once said, 'Without doubt, there can be no true faith'. This struggle to hold onto surety is dramatically fertile ground which I wish the film had explored more deeply. For instance, there is a scene in the film where Chris Kyle is interviewed by a psychologist about his PTSD and the doctor asks him if he has any regrets. Kyle quickly answers that he only wishes he could have saved more Marines. I found this an interesting answer, only because there isn't the slightest bit of introspection from Kyle, and he seems blind to an obvious solution to protecting Marines which Kyle has never contemplated. If he had just stopped to think about it, one good and undeniable way to save more Marines would be to not send them into Iraq in the first place. Though that thought would never have occurred to Chris Kyle because he could not allow doubt about the mission to enter his mind. For Chris Kyle, doubt is death. In this way, Chris Kyle was like the jihadis he so masterfully killed in Iraq, he was a 'true believer'. The thing about the 'true believer' is that deep down, his faith isn't so true, because he cannot grapple with doubt. Thus his faith is one of compulsion and force, not one of reason and logic. American Sniper never had the artistic courage for this, and other deeper explorations and that is a shame because it could have been so much more than it was.

Regardless of what American Sniper isn't and what topics it avoids, it still could have been a great and entertaining movie as it was, a straight up biopic and war film. Sadly, it fails at this attempt because it gets the basics wrong. The basics being the visuals which look pedestrian and cheap, the script which is clumsily written and the acting, which, with the notable exception of Bradley Cooper, is amateurish. After the heart pounding trailer, I went into American Sniper with elevated expectations which the film was unable to meet and so I left the theatre exceedingly disappointed with the film.

Once upon a time, Clint Eastwood directed one of my favorite films of all time, Unforgiven, which would have been an excellent blue print to follow in making American Sniper. The regrets and impact of a life of violence upon the human psyche and soul is a vast and rich topic on which to meditate for an artist, which Eastwood proved in Unforgiven, but with American Sniper he chooses to avoid those difficult questions and instead makes a garden variety biopic that is little more than a commercial for the family approved legacy of Chris Kyle. It certainly isn't the worst film ever made, so if you are a fan boy or a flag waver, and there is nothing wrong with being either of those things, then this film might be for you. But if you are a cinephile or thinking patriot, then your time would be better spent elsewhere.

FOR FURTHER READING ON THE TOPIC OF THE REAL-LIFE CHRIS KYLE, PLEASE CLICK ON THIS LINK TO MY BLOG POSTING Truth, Justice and the Curious Case of Chris Kyle

 

ADDENDUM: THE FILM WHISPERER SPEAKS...

After reviewing a film, I am often asked…"okay smart guy, if you are such a god damn genius, then how would you make the film?" So… here is the answer to that question...how could they have made American Sniper (as a straight forward biopic war movie) a better film? Here is my prescription: you start the film with Chris and Taya Kyle's wedding. You have about five to seven minutes of wedding stuff (The Godfather starts with a wedding…remember!?!?). You meet his family and in the form of toasts at the wedding they tell stories of Chris' childhood. You have his SEAL classmates give toasts telling of Kyle's SEAL training and friendships with team members. You have an intimate scene of Chris and Taya having a quiet and profound moment together. Then after establishing the people in Chris's life, and his relationship to them, you put him on the roof in Iraq behind his sniper rifle aiming at the woman and her son. Then you spend the next hour of the film showing every single confirmed kill, all 160 of them, that Chris Kyle ever made. These are not elaborate set-ups and wouldn't bust the budget. Quite the opposite. You just have a shot of Kyle in various locales and then have a shot through his scope at what he sees and you see each person he shoots drop and Kyle's reaction to it. You do this over and over and over, with some interactions with Marines and soldiers he is protecting thrown in, and his 'door to door' work as well, until his first tour is over. Then you show him back home with Taya as she is pregnant and then with the newborn. Chris never speaks in these 'at home' segments, he is detached and preoccupied. The Iraq segments of the film should be especially vibrant, both visually and with sound, in direct contrast to the 'at home' sections, which are washed out and nearly silent. Then back to Iraq for tour two and more sniper kills from Kyle, interspersed with his lively interactions with fellow SEALs and Marines. Then back home for more detached domesticity…and so on and so forth until his final kill at the end of tour four and his return home for good. 

This approach would show how grinding and relentless the work of war is for the men who wage it, and the true impact of that assault on Chris Kyle's psyche, senses and soul. The audience would be rubbed raw from watching an hour of non-stop, methodical killing of 160 men, women and children. Then we transition to back home permanence and the struggle to get back to normal. It would seem as foreign to the viewer as it must have been for Chris Kyle. We then spend the next twenty minutes having very tight and intense scenes between Chris and Taya as they do the hard work of recovering their marriage, family and a sense of normalcy. These would be great scenes for Cooper and Miller to really dig in and have some fantastic acting moments as they fight for their relationship and family. This conflict is resolved when Kyle relents and goes to a psychiatrist who diagnoses him with PTSD and then tells him how he can help other servicemen suffering from the same ailment. Now we get into the final forty minutes or so of the film, which should be spent showing Kyle having very deep and meaningful conversations and interactions with PTSD sufferers. You have one or two guys in particular who we get to know and we see how Kyle's work impacts them and transforms them. So we see the tangible good Kyle did for others and how he helped himself by helping them. This gives us a true picture of Chris Kyle being healed and whole. Then you have Kyle and his close friend leave an empty house, Taya and the kids are out and Kyle has to leave the house without saying goodbye, and they go and meet a another young man with PTSD and they have a long drive to a shooting range and we see Kyle helping this guy as he has helped the other men we've met. At the end of this long drive and a profound conversation, Chris, his friend and the young man get out of the truck at a shooting range and you see from a long distance the young man pull a gun and kill both Kyle and his friend. Then, in the final scene, we see Taya with the kids, out at the mall or something, and her cell phone rings, we see her answer but don't hear anything. We see her crumble in horror and grief as she obviously gets the news of her husband's murder. Fade to black, scroll the news footage of Chris Kyle's funeral procession and memorial at Texas stadium.

Doing the film this way maintains Kyle's 'legacy' much more than the Eastwood film does. It doesn't make him another action hero, it makes him an actual human being, who excelled at war, struggled to recover his balance once returning from war, and then found himself once again being of service to others. That is how you make a financially and artistically successful Chris Kyle biopic. Back up the Brinks truck and prepare your Oscar speech Mr. Cooper and Mr. Eastwood and maybe even Ms. Miller. Sadly, this isn't what happened. Oh…and Hollywood studios, please wise up and contact me, The Film WhispererBEFORE you shoot these films,  and you will save yourself a lot of trouble, and make yourself a lot of money and win yourself a lot of Oscars. I am currently available and my rates are reasonable…for now.

© 2014

FOR REVIEWS OF OTHER FILMS RELEASED DURING THE HOLIDAY SEASON, PLEASE CLICK ON THESE LINKS TO THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING , WHIPLASH , BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) , FOXCATCHER , WILD , THE IMITATION GAME , A MOST VIOLENT YEAR , NIGHTCRAWLER , STILL ALICE , INHERENT VICE , SELMA , MR. TURNER , CAKE .