American Sniper is an action movie with just enough intelligence to masquerade as a complex character study, a study of a man profoundly affected by the horrors of war and by the 160 confirmed kills built up over his four tours. Eastwood and co. are smart enough to recognize that there are other viewpoints to the war and that complexity can be compelling, but the problem is that they overlook what exactly made Chris Kyle’s story complex and compelling. As a result, everything becomes wrapped up in a generic, filtered, and crowd-pleasing bundle of a story with nothing new to say.
Yes, this is based upon the book Chris Kyle wrote, and yes, his specific viewpoints toward enemies and the war are essential to the story. That does not, however, give the filmmakers an excuse not to thoroughly engage with the ideas brought up by the book, with the person who wrote the book. Rather than doing so, American Sniper coasts along on its simple, one-sided path, posing questions out of obligation rather than out of legitimate interest, pulling back whenever an issue gets too deep for it to handle. Chris Kyle’s perspective is key, but the movie doesn’t have to just leave it at his perspective. His view of the world is in black-and-white–which is certainly understandable for a sniper–but that doesn’t mean the movie must be. There is a key difference between lazily displaying a perspective and engaging with a perspective, and this movie has the former down pat.
Its storytelling decisions also leave something to be desired. The story’s scope becomes so narrow that it could be inserted into Chris Kyle’s sniper rifle, and while I love a good character study, any exploration of this man’s psyche is heavy-handed, cliched, and simplistic. His wife, Taya Kyle–played well by Sienna Miller–is there to deliver the requisite “You’ve changed, Chris!” lines before being kicked off to the side in favor of more extended battle sequences, and any supporting characters we come across barely make an impact before they die or before we forget about them. When we do take the story to Iraq, there’s a laughable rivalry of sorts between Kyle and Mustafa, an enemy sniper whose calling card is intense music; to make matters worse, the resolution to that rivalry features one of Eastwood’s worst directing decisions in the movie (I say “one of” because Fake Baby exists). There’s a hint at genuine complexity during a scene in which Mustafa’s family is paralleled with Kyle’s family, but as we come to expect from the movie, it avoids delving into the parallels.
There are definitely things to like about this movie: Cooper’s performance is great, there’s a bar scene that’s pretty powerful, Eastwood displays his best directing chops during a striking battle scene within a sandstorm, and the 2+ hours spent watching never really gets boring; it’s frequently tense and sometimes thrilling. At the same time, though, Chris Kyle’s psyche is merely poked and prodded at a few times before he’s wrapped up in a heroic package, and the movie’s ending is rushed, far from as thoughtful or as powerful as it may appear at first. There’s nothing wrong with an action movie, nor is there anything wrong with a pro-military stance, nor is there anything wrong with acknowledging the toll war takes and having immense respect for what these men go through. There is, however, something wrong with how this movie goes about telling its story.
-There’s a particular scene in the beginning that suggests a link between Iraq and 9/11, and while it’s certainly more about a link that popped up in many peoples’ minds back then–and more about Chris’s mindset–I was hoping they would at least acknowledge later on that there was no link. I’m sure that this is just going to reinforce the opinions of uninformed people; I’ve come across some who still have the same misguided notions of Iraq and 9/11.
-I normally don’t like reviewing a movie based on what I wanted it to be, but man, how much more interesting would it have been if the movie didn’t try to have us sympathize with Chris Kyle and portrayed him more accurately? There’s no denying that certain movie scenes contrast with the character we get from the book, so a movie all about a man reluctant to acknowledge psychological tolls would probably be very compelling.
-Eastwood’s known for disliking multiple takes, but he had to do it for the fake baby scene, right? I mean, how in the hell would Cooper keep from bursting out laughing there?
-Oh hey, it’s Joel from Parenthood.
-This movie has already hit $200 million. Meanwhile, better movies like The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty didn’t even come close.
-The CGI in this movie is horrible. All that digital blood stuff, please go away.
-It’s sad that I still feel the need to add this part to my post, but here goes: disliking this movie does not make someone anti-American, nor does liking the movie make someone a jingoist. The fact that discussion of this movie has become dominated by politicized, polarized issues is disappointing. Also, me saying that Chris Kyle was not a good man–he really wasn’t, and him being a SEAL doesn’t change that he was a lying piece of trash–doesn’t say anything about my political views.
-The way Chris’s PTSD is “resolved” at the end is so damn lazy. Kind of speaks to the handling of it throughout the movie.
-The butcher drill scene is well done and very intense.
-Mustafa’s slow motion death: stupid.
-I’m sure there were legal issues regarding the Kyle murder, but reducing that part of his story to a simple line of text annoys me a bit, especially considering the PTSD discussion around his killer. I feel like Kyle’s life post-war is very important to his story as well, but the movie obviously doesn’t think so; it’s all done in a very rushed manner.
Photo credit: American Sniper, Village Roadshow Pictures