American Sniper

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 01/15/15 18:16:15

"White Hunter, Black Heart"
1 stars (Sucks)

Chris Kyle was a Navy SEAL who served four tours of duty in Iraq as a marksman and who managed to rack up 160 confirmed kills as a sniper--not to mention the hundred additional unconfirmed kills that he is said to have made--a number that made him the deadliest marksman in our military's history. In the eyes of many, these achievements automatically make him a hero and indeed, he deserves an enormous amount of respect for answering the call of duty and fighting for his country, regardless of one's feelings towards the war in Iraq as a whole. However, things are never quite as simple as that and there are many things about Kyle and his story that muddy up the waters. In "American Sniper," his best-selling memoir about his military exploits, he described killing as "fun," presumed that every single person he killed was a monster ("I hate the damn savages. I couldn't give a flying fuck about the Iraqis"), adding "I don't shoot people with Korans. I'd like to, but I don't." and bragged about looting houses in Fallujah as well.

At home, he claimed to have shot and killed two carjackers in Texas, receiving a pat on the back from local authorities for his efforts, utilized his sniper skills on behalf of the government and/or the private defense contractor Blackwater to pick off looters in New Orleans during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and that he punched out Jesse Ventura in a Minnesota bar in 2006 after attending a funeral when Ventura allegedly went on an anti-Iraq war rant that culminated with him saying that the SEALs "deserved to lose a few." Needless to say, his claims regarding the carjackers, Katrina and Ventura were all proven to be demonstrably false (with Ventura even winning a $1.8 million judgement against him for defamation of character) and the sheer outrageous and unnecessary nature of them, combined with Kyle's more-than-healthy sense of self-aggrandizement is enough to make one question just about everything about him aside from the inescapable facts that he served his country in Iraq, he served his country even more nobly when he returned home when he began working with soldiers suffering from PTSDs and died tragically when he was killed at a shooting range by one of the very same troubled soldiers that he was trying to help.

With the high-profile nature of Kyle's story and its best-seller status, it was perhaps inevitable that someone would make "American Sniper" into a movie (and it was already in the early stages of pre-production when Kyle was killed in early 2013) but what kind of movie would it be? Would it be an unapologetically pro-Kyle work that eradicates all of the messy and troubling details of his life for an antiseptic portrait more along the lines of a modern-day "Sergeant York"? Would it be a warts-and-all work that would go beyond the memoir to examine the brutal realities behind the man and the myth? Would it somehow find a balance between the two approaches that would celebrate the man while still questioning what drove him as well as the psychic toll that he would bear as the result of his actions? These are all valid approaches, I suppose, but in bringing "American Sniper" to the screen, it is painfully obvious that director Clint Eastwood never quite decided on a single conclusive take on the material and instead flits back and forth between them virtually from scene to scene. The result is a confused and occasionally appalling mess that does things so wrong so often that it is enraging at times, especially since there are a few moments that genuinely do work and which suggest what the film might have been like in the right hands.

The film opens fairly brilliantly with an unbearably tense moment in Iraq in which Kyle (Bradley Cooper) has a woman and a young boy in his sights and is forced to make a split-second decision as to whether or not they are potential dangers that need to be eliminated. From there, the film flashes back to show him as an aimless shit-kicking rodeo cowboy who decides at last to pull his life together by entering the notoriously difficult Navy SEAL training program. He passes, showing a strong aptitude for marksmanship, meets and marries the headstrong Taya (Sienna Miller) and in the wake of 9/11, he is deployed to Iraq for the first of his four tours of duty. The film then returns to that rooftop where he does indeed pull the trigger and racks up two of the kills that will eventually make him a living legend among his own men.

Over the course of his tours in Iraq, he becomes part of a group charged with hunting down both Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (Mido Hamada), the so-called Butcher of Fallujah, and his second-in-command, Mustafa (Sammy Sheik) an expert sniper and Olympic shooter known as "The Butcher." With a huge bounty on Kyle's head, a deadly game of cat-and-mouse begins to develop on the battlefield between him and The Butcher. Between tours, he returns home and begins a family with Taya but there is still a distance between him and then--he refuses to discuss his experiences, he is uncomfortable when he is praised for his efforts and despite his new responsibilities, he is almost eager to return to the fray whenever he gets the chance. Finally, after an especially hellish firefight that leaves him wounded, he is ready to go home but requires a period of adjustment to get back to ordinary life. On the advice of a psychiatrist that he eventually visits, Kyle begins to get back to normal and begins working with returned soldiers himself until tragedy eventually ensues.

Although Clint Eastwood is often described as a conservative filmmaker in some circles, his best work has always tended to defy such cut-and-dried ideological concerns--his willingness to tell stories with strong female characters played by actresses who have been cast for more than their looks should give him consideration as one of the key feminist filmmakers of our time--and one presumes that he wanted to bring this sense of ambiguity to his first cinematic portrayal of the conflict in Iraq. The trouble is that of all the possible stories to receive such a treatment, "American Sniper" is not the one because the whole point of Kyle's story is his black-and-white approach to everything--it was the aspect that may have made him so successful on the battlefield (where there is little room for a sniper with a nuanced view of the world) and the aspect that he needed to find a way to temper in order to make it back home to a world where everything is not a life-or-death decision. Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall try to have it both ways by showing him as the straightforward and sure-shooting hero of the conservative set--the type who may well send nasty letters to anyone suggesting that this film is wanting in certain areas--while still retaining some of the darker elements of the story but the mix of the two approaches is uneasy at best and disastrous at worst.

In ways both big and small, Eastwood more or less allows the right-leaning perspective of Kyle's story to shine through. For example, the film leaps almost instantly from the 9/11 attacks to Kyle in Iraq, presenting a false connection between the two of the same kind that got America into the conflict in the first place. Instead of demonstrating the grueling, soul-deadening job of being a sniper along the lines of the gripping opening scene, the film presents most of his subsequent kills as random incidents in which the targets are little more than stick figures existing only to be blown up real good. The through line involving the pursuit between Kyle and Mustafa (who barely rates a mention in the book) is ridiculously inflated in ways that allow the film to delve into more conventional action film heroics to get the blood of the audience pumping. More significantly, the film smooths away all of Kyle's rough edges--none of the more inflammatory comments from his book nor any of the stuff involving Katrina, carjackers or former governors is even hinted at and his self-aggrandizing nature is also nowhere on display. I understand why Eastwood and Hall would be reluctant to focus on this aspect of his character but as it was clearly such a central part of who he was, the absence of such material leaves a void at his center that cannot be denied or overlooked.

"American Sniper" also suffers from the same flaw as many of Eastwood's recent directorial efforts--an obvious unwillingness to spend a little time with the material in order to make it work. Eastwood's fans venerate him as a director in no small part because of the speed in which he makes his films--at a time when some directors take years off between projects, this is just the latest year in which he has produced not one but two feature films (though you can be forgiven for forgetting "Jersey Boys). Unfortunately, while this run-and-gun attitude may look good from a production standpoint, it rarely does the finished product any favors and that is the case here. Visually, the film is largely undistinguished and while it lacks the outright sloppiness of "Jersey Boys," which has to be one of the clunkiest and most under-lit musicals ever produced, there doesn't seem to be any discernible rhyme or reason towards the visual presentation. The battle scenes have so little form to them that they seem practically interchangeable--an interesting notion if that were the intention but it just comes off here like sloppy filmmaking.

It also mean that he is unwilling to rework key scenes even when they scream for a rethink. Take the scene in which Kyle and his son are in a garage and Kyle stands there uncomfortably while another soldier praises him at great length for his service. This should be one of the most powerful scenes in the film but is undone because of the flat-out terrible performance from the guy playing the soldier. Likewise, the final scene, in which Kyle says goodbye to his family on the morning of his death (which is not depicted) is so awful that it is almost enraging--none of the dialogue rings trues (it plays as if everyone knows that Kyle is about to be killed) and the guy playing Kyle's killer is so twitchy that he makes Bruce Dern seem sedate by comparison. This is not to say that I wanted to end the film with the sight of Kyle being blown away but to conclude it with him unexpectedly in the same crosshairs as the 160+ people upon which he made his reputation might have brought a certain gravity to the proceedings that might have helped things considerably.

What makes these bungles so annoying--even more so than in such recent Eastwood misfires as "Flags of our Fathers," "Gran Torino," "J. Edgar" and "Jersey Boys"--is that amidst all the missteps, mistakes and borderline offensive moments, there are some good things here and there that go a long way towards suggesting what might have been. As previously mentioned, the opening rooftop scene is a gripping piece of filmmaking that milks the tension to almost unbearable levels without ever overdoing things. (It is no wonder that this is the scene featured most prominently in the commercials.) As Kyle, Bradley Cooper, who is a performer that I usually have little use for outside of his excursions with David O. Russell, is infinitely stronger than the material that he is working with and gives it most of what little depth and ambiguity it has--there is another scene involving him, a little kid and a rocket launcher that just may be the best thing he has ever done on screen. And while she is stuck with a character that has precious little to do other than to give birth and look aggrieved or teary-eyed, depending on the occasion, Sienna Miller goes a long way from making the role into something other than a cardboard construct--as was the case with "Foxcatcher," Miller is so convincing and so unrecognizable (something that you would thing would be virtually impossible for anyone vaguely resembling Sienna Miller to pull off) that anyone not knowing that she was in the film going in would be hard-pressed to guess her presence until the end credits.

Their efforts aside, "American Sniper" is a fairly rotten contraption that wants to give an ambiguous portrayal of a resolutely unambiguous person but only Kyle's jingoistic behavior winds up cutting through all the confusion. Ironically, this may well lead to its success at the box office, especially as conservative commentators try to make it their latest cause and level protests at anyone who dares insinuate that it is not particularly good or that it distorts the historical record. (In that regard, it is more or less the mirror image of the current "Selma"). For Eastwood, who could certainly use a financial hit after a string of non-starters capped off by the embarrassing "Jersey Boys," this may be a great thing but it is also sure to inspire others to think of the braver and more penetrating working that might have been--a film that would have better represented Chris Kyle and one that might have really bee worth fighting for in the end.

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