Reviewing a movie like American Sniper is a lot like walking through a minefield. Not only it is made by an American icon, but it’s about an American hero. To not like it is likely to get you branded as unpatriotic and your parentage viewed as dubious at best — and these are among the nicer things that might be said. But the fact remains that I don’t like the film, find it at best competent and often downright mediocre. In the interest of full disclosure, I am not a worshipper at the altar of Eastwood, and, yes, my politics are about as far from his as possible. Not that his politics really enter into this — except perhaps as concerns the film’s decidedly wart-free picture of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper). It’s mostly the fact that the film just is such a nuance-free affair — and lazily-made in the bargain. What might have been a penetrating film about the war and its after-effects becomes a standard war movie that often feels like a shooter videogame. That may be exactly what a lot of people want, but it’s less a biopic than a hagiopic. All the racist remarks and the sometimes bizarre self-mythologizing in Kyle’s autobiography have been carefully excised.
The movie tells the story of Chris Kyle as played by Bradley Cooper — who we can tell is really acting here because he beefed himself up for the role so that his neck is as big as his head. (I actually like Cooper, but I’ve been more impressed with him in other films.) Kyle is, if you don’t know, the deadliest U.S. sniper of all time — 160 confirmed kills, another 100 probables. The film opens with him on a rooftop on the edge of making a call on whether or not to shoot a young boy with a grenade. Instead of following through on this, the film enters into a lengthy series of flashbacks to establish Kyle’s background — from his hunting, strict God-fearing, never back-down-from-a-fight upbringing to his attempts at being a cowboy to his enlistment and training as a SEAL to his marriage and deployment. It is economical, I suppose, but it’s also incredibly simplistic. Kyle doesn’t so much have a meet-cute with Taya (Sienna Miller) as a meet-corny — amidst lots of Jameson Whiskey product placement. (And I may be in the minority, but I find the scene where Kyle makes an impossible shot — blowing away a snake — and explains his improved marksmanship with, “I’m better when it’s breathing,” a little chilling.) At the end of all this, the film finally gets back to the rooftop and its grim, but rather matter-of-fact conclusion.
Right here, the film has established its basic war picture approach. Before it’s over we’ll even have someone getting a “dear John” letter — so much is the film in WWII movie mode. It quickly becomes a series of largely undistinguished battle scenes — tied to a wholly fictional running battle between Kyle and a character named Mustafa (Sammy Sheik) — interspersed with trips home between tours. The first of these finds Kyle getting there in time to see his wife give birth to a laughably bad rubber prop baby. (Not content with using this careless bogus baby once, Eastwood gives it a second scene.) The point of these trips home seems mostly to be to establish how withdrawn from the normal world Kyle is becoming.
That last is certainly where the film should score its points, but not only does it have nothing fresh to say, it becomes glib once Kyle comes home for good. Yes, he’s suffering from PTSD. But, hey, the movie’s winding down, so he finds help for himself in helping other veterans in about 10 minutes of screentime. All of this leads to the most abrupt, perfunctory endings imaginable — with the most heavy-handed foreshadowing possible. In case — though it seems unlikely — you don’t know, read no further. Kyle was killed by an ex-Marine he was trying to help reconnect with the world — something that occurred during the movie’s development, and which may have dictated the tone the film took. It is also something the film deals with via an onscreen title, which feels abrupt, awkward, and just not enough. Actually, that sums up my feelings about the whole movie. Rated R for strong and disturbing war violence, and language throughout including some sexual references.