AFI Fest 2014 Review: ‘American Sniper’ Aims Too Low
The story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is full of more than enough sacrifice and tragedy for a movie. The cinematic version of his story is like most recent era Clint Eastwood directed movies: good enough, but it could have been even more.
We meet Kyle in battle, with impossible judgment calls in his hands. He has the authority to decide whether a mother and child are insurgents or innocent citizens. What if he’s wrong? My God, what if he’s right? A flashback gives us a great SEAL training montage and introduces us to Kyle’s wife Taya (Sienna Miller), but catches back up to the opening scene by his first tour of duty.
The philosophy of snipers is fascinating. Since their skill is so surgical, it’s about small details. Whenever Kyle is forced to make a judgment call about a potential target, it is heartbreaking, no matter the outcome. Those scenes are such self-contained dramas that it would make sense to spend more of the movie exploring the unique nature of each judgement call Kyle had to make with 120 kills, but really only two extremes are shown. The film introduces the subtlety in Kyle’s craft, but doesn’t delve into it.
It’s always good to portray war scenarios, especially such a recent one. Let us see what we’re really sending people to do, and what was already going on there before we stepped in. It’s inherently harrowing cinema and it may be doing a public service. The film does build up a nemesis sniper really well so it’s palpable whenever he is involved, creating an interesting personal battle for Kyle even though they never meet.
In real war, violence is sudden but in movies you can tell when the misdirect is contrived. I mean, when they start sharing innocuous banter long after all the characters have been established, I hate to shatter the illusion, but the filmmakers are planning to spring something on us. Perhaps these events are recreated 100% accurately. As I said, I know real war is unfathomably random. That’s why it’s so troubling when the movie version feels manipulative.
Whenever Kyle is home, the film spends as much time telling us he’s distant as showing us. Cooper and Miller are giving great performances, compassionate and sympathetic but with all the complications of real human beings, let alone human beings dealing with wars. That’s why it’s so disappointing when the drama stops to tell us what’s so dramatic about it.
An odd artistic choice I can’t quite put my finger on is when the film will cut from the middle of a skirmish to the aftermath. I’m struggling to think of an aesthetic reason that makes sense. Is it that Kyle’s state of mind is more important than the resolution of the battle? Not when the film made it so clear that he cares equally about every person in his or anyone else’s squad. Is it because by that point in the film, Kyle’s skill is so unquestionable that it need not be shown to completion? Again, that doesn’t fall in line with Kyle’s commitment to the military. Even more baffling, a climactic moment actually uses bullet time. Really?
What I mean to say is that I’m so impressed with Chris Kyle just from what I learned about him early in the movie, that I wanted the rest of the movie to live up to or exceed the high standards he himself set. American Sniper stops short of that potential, reducing a truly extraordinary individual to some standard cinematic tricks.