Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Kyle Gallner
US Navy SEAL Chris Kyle’s (Cooper) pinpoint accuracy as a sniper made him one of the most lethal snipers in American history in terms of his number of confirmed kills. His marksman skills saved countless lives of fellow soldiers on the battlefield and also made him a prime target for the enemy. His status makes him a hero back home, but however it puts extreme pressure on his marriage and when back home he struggles to leave the psychological effects of the war behind.
There has been much debate as to whether American Sniper is just a propaganda piece in its depiction of the Iraq war and those involved, well though its depiction is certainly a little one sided and simplistic, people seem to have forgotten the most important thing; American Sniper just is not a very good film. As a piece of narrative drama it is just very poorly put together with extremely slapdash pacing that is sometimes too fast or too slow and an extremely flat script; what is the biggest disappointment is that this is from a director who should know better. There are moments when American Sniper feels like it is trying to be a dramatic war epic with a textbook hero’s journey and others when it (sort of) tries to be an intimate psychological examination of the effects at war, well it pretty much fails at both.
I may have written at the end of the synopsis about how Chris Kyle struggles with the psychological effects of the war when back home, well I think I may have given the film more credit than it actually deserves as though it occasionally flirts with examining which is a very powerful subject, it just lacks any conviction in doing so. Indeed, the film’s best moments are away from the battlefield, but Jason Hall’s script goes nowhere near as far as it should and could have done, and as just as the film looks like it is about to have some real substance we are then sent to Kyle’s next tour of duty. Scenes with former veterans or Kyle sitting in silence with the noises of the battlefield in his head and any loud noise feeling like a noise from the battlefield are then wasted by the script’s total lack of conviction, which is frustrating as it is a subject that deserves examination.
Kyle serves four tours of Iraq during the narrative and the depiction of all four makes for quite dull viewing, which is quite ridiculous considering they really shouldn’t be, but they feel quite repetitive with a total lack of intensity. Eastwood is usually a sure hand at this sort of thing, but all the scenes are really poorly put together and directed, and quite frankly, boring. Not only are they dull to watch, but the extremely one sided and simplistic approach to westerners Vs evil savages of the film’s battlefield scenes do not serve to add any context to the themes the story half heartedly looks at anyway. I of course do not know what is fact and fiction, and one of the key plot points is an Enemy at the Gates type rivalry with a fellow sniper on the other side, but again this just adds nothing whatsoever, with the other sniper being made out almost to be a very two dimensional antagonist of the film.
I am probably going to be accused of being anti Bradley Cooper or something, but for the third year in a row he has been given award nominations for a performance that does not deserve any in a film that also does not deserve its award nominations. His performance in American Sniper is adequate and physically he certainly looks the part, and though it is quite reserved by his often manic standards of overacting, he just lacks the screen presence or emotional depth for drama. Though of course the extremely flat script and hideous pacing of the film does not help his case a better actor would certainly elevate what is very poor material. Perhaps Cooper should just stick to silly blockbuster remakes of 80s TV series, comedies about heavy drinking, voicing CGI racoons and horror films with Vinnie Jones.
One of the positives of American Sniper is Sienna Miller; despite the narrative importance of her character as Kyle’s wife, she does not get the amount of screen time her character (or indeed performance) deserves, but her excellent performance gives emotional substance to her scenes even when the script struggles to.
The story of Chris Kyle may well be one worth telling, but American Sniper does not make it feel that way in the slightest. It would be interesting to see what this would have been like had Spielberg made this with the 160 page script that he wanted to film and Warner Brothers coughed up the money to make it, but what we have is a film that half heartedly tries to be several things and fails at being any of them, which is a frustrating waste. The fact they cut it down to 125 minutes may explain why the pacing is all over the place and also its total lack of heart and soul. Oh, and there is no denying that Chris Kyle deserves hero status, but the closing credit sequence is cringe inducing, inappropriate, patronising and misjudged.
Not only is American Sniper a real unrewarding effort to watch with its clumsy narrative pacing, poor direction and flat script, it is also a waste of what could have been an insightful drama that could have examined some very pertinent and important themes. What a waste.