Military biopic shines in-country, stumbles at home
Early in American Sniper, the new biopic about Navy Seal Chris Kyle, there is a scene where Kyle is undergoing marksman training and his instructor advises him to close his “off eye” (the one not looking through the sight). Kyle challenges that advice, saying he needs to be aware and see everything around him. He then proves his point by shooting a rattlesnake hiding in the brush to the side of the target.
Director Clint Eastwood should have heeded the advice inherent in that scene: keep both eyes open. Instead, he has used his considerable filmmaker understanding of pacing, tension, and drama to focus on the wartime action of this uneven movie, while allowing the stateside drama of Kyle’s eroding family life to languish in repetition and cliché. The result is a film that, despite the emotional immediacy of the Iraq War, remains disappointingly inert as a cinematic story.
Drawn from Kyle’s own celebrated though controversial autobiography of the same name, American Sniper traces his evolution from Texas rodeo cowboy to the most deadly sniper in American military history. The story alternates between hyper-realistic and incredibly tense scenes of Kyle’s burgeoning prowess and reputation through several tours in Iraq, juxtaposed with a growing estrangement from his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), and their small children back home. It becomes clear that Kyle only feels truly alive, at least in a way that he can express openly, when he is peering through the scope of a high-powered rifle.
Director Eastwood effectively captured the dueling sympathies of people at war in his stunning 2006 World War II diptych Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. To this critic’s dismay, here he goes full-bore American jingoism in American Sniper with a dismayingly simplistic “us vs. them” portrayal of the Middle East conflict, depicting all Iraqi citizens as savage threats to the lives of noble U.S. soldiers. Historical accuracy aside, this complete lack of nuance makes for an unsatisfying film narrative.
The screenplay, written by Jason Hall from Kyle ‘s book (which was co-written by Scott McEwen and Jim Felice), does the film no favors either by reducing all of the supporting characters into human props in a story focused nearly entirely on Kyle.
Bradley Cooper brings an unexpected depth and fervor to his performance as Kyle. It’s difficult to reconcile this subtle portrayal with the same actor who starred in The Hangover films and Wedding Crashers. Sienna Miller is appealing as Taya Kyle, but her performance is substantially weakened by the trite and whiny posture she must take, imploring her sniper to come home and rejoin his family over and over again.
As a glimpse into the life of a real person, American Sniper fails to overcome the same challenge that stymied 2014’s Foxcatcher. What is the point of making a film about a person whose interior life is utterly unknowable? The viewer leaves this film strangely unsatisfied, having gained no insight into the central character’s thinking and motivation.
Both Cooper and the movie have received Academy Award nominations. Tellingly, however, Eastwood did not. This no doubt has to do with the tautly-directed, gripping war scenes that contrast sharply with the monochromatic depiction of the various sides in the conflict and the half-hearted portrayal of Kyle’s home life. While audiences have flocked to see it, it is uncertain what, if any, lessons in either love or war they will take home from this fight.