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‘American Sniper’ stumbles, but Bradley Cooper shines

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American Sniper
Written for the screen by Jason Hall
Directed by Clint Eastwood
USA, 2014

After unsuccessful forays into musicals and political biopics with Jersey Boys and J. Edgar, Clint Eastwood returns to more traditionally masculine material usually associated with his filmmaker persona. With American Sniper, he tackles the drama and real-life accounts of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, but as compelling as the on-the-ground combat is, the real story worth telling is largely ignored for the pyrotechnics.

The film begins with an unnecessary  exploration of Kyle’s childhood as his father lays out all of humanity into three simple categories: wolves, sheep and sheepdogs. It’s a message young Chris takes to heart as he grows up into a man who sees little else but black and white. After witnessing the events of 9/11 he signs up for the Navy SEALs. Bradley Cooper bulks up considerably to play Chris Kyle, packing on enough muscle mass to convincingly play one of the most accomplished SEALs in recent history. Adopting a Texas drawl and a stoic manner befitting a man of his reputation, Cooper almost doesn’t pass for himself.

American Sniper wastes no time establishing the high stakes Kyle faces every day. A woman and child with an RPG stare down an envoy of soldiers. The shot needs to be taken and Kyle does so without much regret. Eastwood avoids the frenetic pacing of modern war films, instead treating viewers to long shots with only Cooper and the trigger as the focus. Kyle doesn’t share the concerns of what the U.S. is doing in Iraq like his fellow brothers-in-arms, he’s just there to protect others. After four tours and 160 kills confirmed to his name, Kyle reconciles his near mythic status with his inability to save everyone around him.

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Haunted by each and every loss, Kyle returns home feeling less and less comfortable in his skin each time. His relationship with his wife provides a nice contrast to the four tours in Fallujah, but he refuses to open up to her either. The Kyle who met Taya (Sienna Miller) was charming, now that charm has given way to a much fiercer demeanor. The other soldiers who don’t share Chris Kyle’s particular brand of ideology die – and die badly. Kyle is known as “Legend” for his 160+ kills in the field; being vulnerable in any way could result in one of his fellow soldiers being killed.

The script, adapted from Kyle’s memoirs, is heavy-handed, but luckily for the writers Cooper’s genuine embodiment bails them out. The film is obviously a passion project that Cooper held close to the vest and he gives himself completely to the performance. The problem is that Eastwood’s laid-back directorial style undercuts the material time and time again. Cinematographer Tom Stern’s color palette is certainly not one of my favorites — every film of his looks like it was dipped in a mud puddle — but his handling of a sandstorm sequence is spot-on; one of the few visually moving moments to come from the Eastwood/Stern workman-like approach.

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Dealing with PTSD and the struggle that waits at home once war is over seems ripe for treatment, though the issues are shuffled off for the last twenty minutes or so. That’s not to say that American Sniper had to deal with those social issues relevant to modern veterans, but Eastwood tries to play it both ways and fully succeeds at neither aspect. Kyle’s brother is quite clearly dealing with the rigors of post traumatic stress and then he disappears suddenly, never to be acknowledged again. Similarly, Kyle does eventually deal with the PTSD he had been denying for so long, but only for the ramifications to be dealt with in the epilogue.

Like another awards hopeful (The Imitation Game), American Sniper softens the edges of Kyle’s death, reducing it to a card on the epilogue. Chris Kyle was killed during the film’s production and the nature of his death was irrevocably tied to other servicemen suffering from the aftermath of war. Yes, the film acknowledges those dark events, but it feels incomplete merely as text on a backdrop.

Bradley Cooper really earns the acclaim he’s gotten for disappearing into Kyle completely. It’s just a shame that he wasn’t given the opportunity to really flex his acting muscle by delving deeper into this SEAL’s story. A performance this passionate deserves better.

— Colin Biggs


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