REVIEW: American Sniper

16 01 2015

Towards the beginning of “American Sniper,” Bradley Cooper’s cowboy turned Navy SEAL Chris Kyle receives the instruction to make pulling a trigger an unconscious effort.  Director Clint Eastwood and writer Jason Hall, however, ensure that the audience watching Kyle’s exploits are very conscious of the rationale and logic behind the dispatch of every bullet.  No kill feels sensationalized to satisfy bloodlust, even when that sentiment disguises itself as patriotism.

The film simply portrays one man’s experience during four tours in the post-9/11 Middle East, opting not for any anti-military statement (like “Green Zone“) nor for a chest-thumping jingoism (like “The Kingdom”).  Since Kyle is the protagonist and the eyes through which the viewer watches the film, of course “American Sniper” tilts in his favor.  But he is not celebrated merely because of his record 160 kills; the film lionizes Kyle because of the value he placed on leadership and loyalty.

At this stage in the cinema’s grappling with what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, just telling stories from over there seems important.  And that basically sums up the extent of what “American Sniper” is: a presentation of Chris Kyle’s narrative.  Eastwood and Hall never fully commit to either showing the full terror of combating terrorism (a la “Lone Survivor“) or the grueling mental experience of the soldiers (in the vein of “The Hurt Locker“).  They pull elements from each effectively, yet they never really advance a thesis or a broader takeaway.

Bradley Cooper in American Sniper

The skilled craftsmanship of Eastwood, now 84, shows no signs of rusting.  He works without his typical desaturated, lifeless color palette in “American Sniper,” which makes the film all the more vivid both in America and in Iraq.  Although the war is a drug, it takes on a visceral thrill from a frenzy of sound and motion.  Some of these elements rear their head stateside, too, almost as if Kyle is suffering from withdrawals.

Eastwood’s tends to let the visual language of the film convey PTSD rather than have Kyle talk through his struggles.  He appears less troubled by the blood he spilt and more disturbed by the cruelty and inhumanity of the terrorists that he saw on savage display, and it slowly eats away at his sanity.  Nonetheless, the effects of the war slowly surface in Bradley Cooper’s seamless and confident embodiment of a man who saw quite a lot in the line of duty.

To be fair, Chris Kyle does not seem like the type to weepily bare his soul.  Perhaps a big, dramatic set piece would have been dishonest to the man who likely did not have the word vulnerable in his vocabulary.  Kyle’s mental distress does not find expression in the kind of larger than life moments normally afforded to characters.  At times, this low key style comes across as Cooper holding back with his performance or underplaying the role.

What Cooper achieves, though, is much more important.  He stays true to the nature of an authentic, unapologetic man.  If you see it in a theater and have any doubt as to whether or not Cooper’s acting works, look around and listen to the crowd during the credits.  When I saw the film, the packed house sat motionless, and plenty were in tears.  I very nearly joined in myself.  B+ / 3stars



One response

17 01 2015

Trailer was excellent, and I’ll be seeing this after Inherent Vice. Interesting to see this movie, after not really making any noise at the Golden Globes, suddenly start to rake in the awards and nominations. Especially Bradley Cooper over David Oyelowo, which was a surprise.

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