Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Bradley Cooper redeems the sporadically affecting, overly manipulative narrative of American Sniper. It’s loosely based on the true story of the NAVY Seal Chris Kyle, who has now lived in legend as the most lethal sniper in American history. There’s something commendable about a film attempting to explore the atrocities of war and the lengths to which it destroys a soldier’s psyche. Yet that element has been explored by other filmmakers to more affecting degrees: Stanley Kubrick tackled it masterfully in Full Metal Jacket almost thirty years ago, and Kathryn Bigelow’s extraordinary The Hurt Locker won Best Picture less than a decade ago. Bradley Cooper creates Kyle as a determined individual that wants to make a difference, yet he feels brainwashed by a society that has told him to fight against the evils outside of the United States. If the film stuck more to those core values and the biting social commentary underlying his action, it would be more impactful; instead, we are left admiring his ability to kill and left with little outside of manipulative family melodrama.
Chris Kyle is a rodeo cowboy that aspires to be more after seeing the aftermath of 9/11 on a struggling country. He enlists as a Navy Seal, with his previous credentials more than serving him well, and he is sent on a tour to Iraq as a sniper. He has remarkable pinpoint accuracy, and records the most kills of anyone out on the battlefield. The trailers on television have teased at the film’s opening scene, which is undeniably thrilling: Kyle is presented with an outstanding moral dilemma. A child is seemingly holding a bomb but there is no definitive proof; they have just exited a building known for specializing in terroristic acts. If he shoots, he might make a fatal mistake, destroy his life and the child’s, and ruin the integrity of the war effort by murdering an innocent boy. But if he’s right, he’ll save the lives of his fellow soldiers while committing a necessary evil. When the film tackles moral dilemmas like that and make Chris an embattled protagonist, Sniper is captivating.
Yet the film revels in violence and uses it to increasingly grating effect. Take a scene where a terrorist kidnaps a helpless child and not only threatens him in front of his family and soldiers standing in the distance, but he drills holes into the child’s hands because, well, he’s evil. He has to show that he’s evil or else people wouldn’t understand! There’s a black-and-white nature to exterior evils in the film, with the narrative caring more about the internal struggles of Chris Kyle and the soldiers on hand. Much like last year’s Lone Survivor, the story is a testament to the power of an individual rather than the actual cause he is fighting for. There’s an indictment of the Iraqi War to be found somewhere and the fact that Kyle has ultimately been brainwashed by the media to believe that all native citizens of those war-torn countries are evil. Yet I have a problem with the film whitewashing such tumultuous issues when they are rarely handled in cinema; instead of giving us the unfamiliar, more compelling story surrounding the extent of America’s actions on this native land, we’re given another story of an American “hero” who ultimately feels the war tear him apart.
Bradley Cooper’s performance is being deservedly praised, since his transformation both physically and emotionally testifies to his career’s trajectory. He’s become a powerful actor that can embody practically any individual, and here he makes a hard-nosed, passionate individual into a disconnected, ravished soldier who seems like a shell of his former self by the film’s conclusion. Sienna Miller is given moments of sincerity and power as a stay-at-home mother waiting for her husband to return, but she’s also delegated to the unfortunately stereotypical domestic presence that feels like it’s torn out of a 1950s drama. Clint Eastwood’s direction, like much of his work, feels calculated and distanced, which lessens the emotional impact of many of his films. Cooper allows those powerful moments to emerge, particularly in his times at home when he is facing thankful citizens and doesn’t know how to respond. There’s affecting filmmaking to be found in American Sniper, and it’s one of the most beloved films of the year by audiences around the nation. Ultimately, though, it left me cold and unconvinced of its importance.
Grade: ★★★ (out of 5)