Thursday, December 25, 2014

American Sniper (**1/2)

Directed by Clint Eastwood


Chris Kyle's reputation precedes him. His record as a Navy SEAL seems impossible, inhuman. As he's touted on the cover of his memoir and in the trailer for Clint Eastwood's latest film, he's the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history. Eastwood's American Sniper is a film about the thin line between war hero and sociopath, whether he intended to make that film or not. It's grippingly intense view of the Iraq war gives American audiences the most thrilling film version that we've ever seen of that most complicated insurgence. In 2009, Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker explored the psychology of the type of man it takes to really excel in today's war reality: an American military made of the utmost sophistication is struggling against a ragtag army that believes in what it's fighting for more than we do. Bigelow's film focused almost exclusively on that psychology. American Sniper is too preoccupied with the built-in linearity of being a biopic about Kyle to really create the same picture of the American soldier's mental fragility that The Hurt Locker was able to pull off. But Eastwood's film is equally as suffocating in its suspense and crafts battle scenes that match the skill of some of the war genre's best films, even its politics can be problematic at times.

Bradley Cooper stars as Kyle, and American Sniper displays the heartthrob actor at his most physically hulking and his most decidedly serious. Cooper's star really flew when David O. Russell tapped into his range as a comedic performer in Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle (he walked away with Oscar nominations for both films), but here Eastwood is using him in a more traditional sense. The moral burden of Kyle's uncommon military career is placed almost entirely on Cooper's shoulders, which can seem cowardly by Eastwood at first glance but as the film progresses you can see how it really brings out the best in the actor. This isn't Cooper's best performance but it is a grand display of his talent. The balance between Kyle's lethal efficiency on the battlefield and his twisted inner torment when returning home is the character's main moral dilemma, and Cooper brings that across with a not insignificant amount glances and body language. American Sniper is definitely an example of an actor grasping at a particular role, the egotist inside telling him that these are the kinds of characters and the types of films that get you respect, but Cooper rises above that because he's so damn good and so sincere. It's a small miracle that Russell was able to show us what Cooper was capable of, because without that we would have missed out on one of our generation's more interesting actors.

The film's screenplay (written by Jason Hall) doesn't always live up to the same standard. It's movements are conventional and easy to spot, too preset to really surprise its audience. We begin with seeing Kyle's childhood briefly, where we see him raised under the hand of a loving but stern father (Ben Reed) who tutors Chris into a life of brave masculinity. A metaphor that the father uses involving wolves, sheep and sheep-dogs would seem a little on the nose if it didn't also feel realistic. As an adult, Chris rides rodeo broncos, traveling the state of Texas, living the life of a cowboy with his younger brother Jeff (Keir O'Donnell). When he witnesses attacks on US embassies around the world, Chris is motivated enough to join the military - at age 30, this seems like a highly unorthodox life decision. After basic training, he meets Taya (Sienna Miller) at a bar where her thorny personality catches his attention and his southern handsomeness catches hers. Things proceed until they are married just days before he's to be deployed to Iraq. His skill for shooting (another trait learned from his father) gets him a job as an expert sniper, protecting the ground crew from above. After the blood-rush intensity of his first kill - it's a young boy and his mother trying to heave an RKG at a tank and dozens of US soldiers - the job comes easy to him, and as he gains more and more kills to his resume, his reputation grows and grows.

Hall's script is frequently contrasting Kyle's shots with the shots of the equally expert sniper named Mustafa (Sammy Sheik) a Syrian gold medalist who has taken sides with the Taliban against the United States. That Mustafa's scenes are always presented with grim villainous score and Kyle's are always showcased with heroic relief are just one of the many issues that can be nitpicked throughout this film. Eastwood has made no secret of his politics, even though American Sniper seems to be trying hard to seem agnostic where those things are concerned. But the film's overall 'benevolent heroes vs. barbaric savages' set-up feels particularly tone deaf in a time where we just learned that in this war we shoving pureed puppy chow up innocent people's assholes. Not that the American military is let completely off the hook. Eastwood's depiction of just how expendable innocent Iraqi civilians are in the American hunt for dangerous insurgents is both sobering and refreshing - the film doesn't exactly want us to believe we'd behaved like angels overseas. All that said, the lines are drawn clearly between good and evil, and what little nuance we're left with is crushed under the boot heel of American patriotism. There's no crime in making a war film that supports the American military, and American Sniper's ability to convey the constant stress of being a US soldier really does amp up the viewing experience, but there isn't much debate about how Eastwood wants you to view Middle Eastern culture - and it ain't pretty.

**SPOILER ALERT** The end of Kyle's life was tragic - being shot and killed by a mentally unstable veteran that he was hoping to help cope. That the movie sees no connection between his horrible death and his own personal part in over 150 gun deaths is an example of how the movie shines a light on certain truths and prefers to push others into the shadows. But this is an exceptionally-made film and probably Eastwood's best since 2003's Mystic River, which isn't exactly saying much but it does mark a high point in the filmmaker's middling late career. It's the first film of his in a while where the performances felt truly crisp and the scenes detailed. Eastwood's reputation as a two-takes-maximum director was beginning to catch up with him, but this film shows how good that style can be when given the right actors. Cooper's work here shows that he can be a movie star - at least he could have been when those still existed, it's the brands that are the stars these days. He's got a slack-jawed handsomeness that really appeals, and he milks it here for everything he can. If anything, it shows that Cooper can be just as effective dramatically as he has been in comedies. There's more to his cinematic persona than a lovable jerk who redeems himself, and that he finds true humanity in Chris Kyle is remarkable indeed. It's unfair to call Chris Kyle a mass murderer when he was only doing what the US military asked him to do, but American Sniper is at it's best when it stresses this point: you can't kill as many people as he did and be a hundred percent good either.

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