American Sniper Review
CHASING DOWN THE LEGEND’S LEGEND
There are a plethora of actors and film directors out there, seeking fame, fortune and the notion of making their impressionable mark on the great tapestry of movie history. Some are big and famous, while others are aspiring and relatively unknown. Actor / film director Clint Eastwood, a revered legendary icon of Hollywood, has found his to the top of that heap, making a name for his himself in both in front and behind the camera. Invictus, Unforgiven, Dirty Harry, Rawhide, Gran Torino, Million Dollar Baby, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly are few of memorable features (TV and film) that are catalogue in Mr. Eastwood’s illustrious career. Now, with the year of 2015 already begun, Clint Eastwood and Warner Bros. Studios, prepare to bring the story of the most lethal sniper in U.S. history to the big screen with the film American Sniper. Does this military bio-feature proudly join Clint’s profound legacy or does it caught on its own crossfires?
Raised under the stern belief of morality and justice, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) spends his twenties as a rodeo cowboy, a passion that’s going nowhere fast as he searches for his purpose in life. Eventually, Chris joins the Navy SEALS, developing a keen sense of military prowess and heightened talent for sniper training. While courting a romance and eventual marriage to Taya (Sienna Miller), a relationship that’s soon to be tested under strenuous conditions, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 occur, calling Chris to duty to fight for the country he loves. Sent to Iraq to combat the enemy, Chris is brutally confronted with the harsh Islamic extremists there, putting his sniper skills to the test as he faces a wide array of violence and death. In time, with threat of war still waging “over there” and caught between two worlds (military and civilian), Chris redeploys into several more tours in Iraq, attempting to satisfy his ambiguous moral psyche, but drawing dangerously close to estranging himself from Taya and their expanding family.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
As many will have already surmised, American Sniper was adapted from the book (American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History) and written by Chris Kyle with addition assistance from Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice. Having seeing the trailers for the movie and the inherit buzz for its release, I decided to read Chris Kyle’s memoir of his time in the service before seeing the film in theaters. The book itself, while simplistic in wording, is a harrowing account of what Mr. Kyle faced in his tours in Iraq (with at least one hundred and sixty confirmed kills by him and being nicknamed “The Legend”) as well as his time spent back at home. As for the film, Eastwood, who has produced several wartime dramas over the years, and screenplay writer Jason Hall try to piece together elements and scenarios from Kyle’s life story, while trying to paint a portrait of realism to a current ongoing war for a theatrical motion picture. The result is a feature film that plays out similar to what you would expect from a traditional war film with a lot gun-toting violence and frenetic battle razzmatazz. Yet, despite a few questionable changes, the film’s greatest strength comes from its central character and the tumultuous trials and emotional tribulations he endures in both the theater of war and on the home front.
The book’s narrative (within the timeframe of Kyle’s tours overseas) is primarily mission based and described in an episodic way. To circumnavigate that, the film version tries to weave a more centralize villain into its story with Chris joining the hunt for the infamous terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi aka “The Butcher of Baghdad” and also a rival insurgent Iraqi sniper named Mustafa. While the tracking of “The Butcher” seems more believable in the movie, the decision to create a rival sniper seems a little wonky; a way to Hollywood-ize the plot up with spurts of snipers conflicts between Chris and Mustafa through the film’s duration. Sure, it adds tension to the movie, but the character’s introduction sort of works against the gritty realism that Eastwood wants to convey.
This being a war feature and all, the action in American Sniper is intense, brutal, and violent with bombastic noise of gunfire and warfare throughout with one or two gruesome scenes to behold. This extensive look into the battlefield is mainly to ensure that the audience comprehends Chris’s daily routine as sniper, witnessing the horrors of the Iraqi insurgents and the difficult quick decisions he must make. The movie, however, does fall into slight repetitive pattern with each of Kyle’s tour spanning twenty to twenty five minutes long, which is then followed by a five to ten minute reprieve of Chris returning home. Always important and worth examining on pretty much every tale of war, American Sniper doesn’t disappoint with those particular home front scenes that are both powerful and haunting to view, watching Chris struggle with his inner emotional turmoil when confronted with his wife, his family, and his existence of a normal life outside the conflict of war. It’s a true reflection to what’s going on in real world with soldier returning home from active duty, forever scarred with some type of PTSD as they desperately try to readjust to civilian life. Perhaps the film could’ve spent a little more time with events “over here” (state side) and not so much “over there” (In Iraq).
As I said above, American Sniper’s greatest strength comes from its main character, which derives from a terrific performance from actor Bradley Cooper. With the way he looks in the movie (packing on forty pounds of muscle to bulk up his body frame), to his dialect of speaking in a soft spoken Texan accent, and to his steely gaze when targeting an enemy through his sniper scope, Cooper, who many will recognize from his roles from such films as Silver Linings Playbook, Wedding Crashers, and The Hangover movies, cultivates an almost perfect theatrical embodiment of Chris Kyle. Even scenes that carry emotional weight to his character are played presumably true to form with Cooper’s subtle approach and steadfast demeanor. In lesser hands, the portrayal of Chris Kyle could’ve been overacted with larger than life heroism depictions and dialogues, but Bradley Cooper’s performance is fantastic on-screen and does Chris’s memory justice.
Besides Cooper, Sienna Miller is the American Sniper’s only other big star. Her role of Taya, Chris’s wife, is good and commendable, but only has limited screen time. That’s not to say she falters on-screen with her character as Miller delivers that right amount emotion weight to Taya, particularly with one scene, when a pregnant Taya is left utterly distraught when a phone call with Chris is interrupted and left activated during sudden combat firefight, allowing her to hear battle waging on the phone and left in a state of panic and powerlessness, wondering if her husband is alive, wounded, or dead. The rest of the cast, however, is more in the background, serving up a couple of minor roles in various scenes. The only two characters that stand out in this group are the characters of Marc Lee played by Luke Grimes and Biggles played by Jake McDorman. There are a couple of actors in this supporting cast that are recognizable from their previous works as some will probably say “Hey, isn’t that the guy from that movie / TV show” (I sure did).
As a final note, I did view the movie in an IMAX theater. While the images on-screen were big and clear and the “amped” up sound quality of all the military battle sequences (gun firing, yelling, explosions, etc) were great, I personally didn’t think American Sniper needed to be formatted in IMAX. Overall, it was just okay and worth the ticket price. Just don’t be expected to be completely immersed like the IMAX screenings of Interstellar or Guardians of the Galaxy.
It’s a foregone conclusion that Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper will be split between those whom like these types of movies and to those who see it as pro-war propaganda by Hollywood. For what it was (flaws and all), I personally enjoyed American Sniper. Despite some wonky creative decisions and some discarded nuances from the book, the movie still retains its relentless thematic power from its overall narrative and an excellent performance from its main lead. It was slightly imperfect, but a good addition to Clint Eastwood’s film career library. Again, the final verdict for the film is pretty much up to the viewer. The real Chris Kyle might be many things to different people (depending on your view of him), but a legend in the Navy SEALS he was and cut from a breed of people that deserve some form of recognition for their efforts and sacrifices. Whatever you call them (soldiers, warriors, lions, sheepdogs, etc), are instrumental in protecting our civilian way of life; shielding us from the horrors that many will hopefully never see and / or experience. And with that said, I say this to all those men and women in our services (past, present, and future) “Thank you” and to Chris Kyle’s memory “Rest in peace, Mr. Kyle…. and I thank you for your service”.