American Sniper is more intent on creating a hero out of Chris Kyle, reportedly the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history, than it is on being an unbiased character study; to be fair, the film was based on Kyle’s eponymous memoir, which wasn’t the most objective of the Iraq War either. So obviously it is a movie that can start all types of political debates amongst your peers. Personally, I didn’t understand what makes Kyle a “hero,” though the film is told through the presumption that our involvement in Iraq is completely justifiable. Director Clint Eastwood tries to convince you of that by pegging all Iraqis as “the enemy.” There are a few implicit hints that Mustafa (played by Sammy Sheik), an Iraqi super-sniper invented by the filmmakers for dramatic effect, is stuck in a very similar — albeit unexplored — circumstance as Chris (played by Bradley Cooper), but their unspoken relationship is never fleshed out past being the backdrop for action sequences; that is regrettable because it would have not only been a fresh dynamic but also could’ve boosted the film’s neutrality.
Conservatism aside, the script is still dreadful. Written by Jason Dean Hall (who helped pen “Paranoia,” apparently a box office bomb), the film is keen on putting stock characters in stock situations. American Sniper is sequenced around Kyle’s four tours in Iraq; Sienna Miller also makes intermittent appearances as Chris’ wife, Taya. Neither the domestic nor foreign drama is any exciting. As you might’ve guessed there’s lots of “support our troops” nationalism embedded in both. Most notably, Kyle’s reasons for joining the Navy SEALs are never really explained, but both Eastwood and Dean Hall are content on having their hero join because of God-given devotion to his country. Who the fuck goes from riding bulls and drinking beers to joining the military based on that alone? Also, how has Hollywood reduced the horrors of living with PTSD to a cliché?
Politics really aside this time, American Sniper does have spot-on cinematography. As much as you could disagree with Eastwood’s stance on labeling Kyle a hero for the same things that he pigeonholes Iraqis as “savages” for, there’s no denying that the film is entertaining visually. There is a real sense of intimacy in the scenes where Kyle is alone with his rifle, especially in the opening sequence — featured most primarily in the film’s advertising — when Kyle is forced to decide whether to pull the trigger on a pre-teen Iraqi boy who is given a grenade by his mother. These scenes are brought to life by Eastwood’s cut-and-dry style, which gives them war-torn grit. The most striking scene both visually and dramatically, however, happens when one of the film’s major shootouts is completely enveloped by a dust storm. It’s those moments when Kyle is forced into the cross-hairs of life and death that the film shines, primarily because its ideologies are not center stage.
While Eastwood and his writers don’t unearth Kyle’s post-traumatic stress themselves, Cooper definitely picks up some of the slack. Ultimately, Cooper makes American Sniper. It’s a shame that the film’s patriotic ambitions restricted how much of Kyle’s mental anguish the audience gets to see because, based on his performance with the material that is given, Cooper could’ve been a classic lead. The actor does a great job at slowly draining whatever charm and sensitivity his character begins with and slowly diluting it with the repressed rage and sadness that accompany Kyle’s four consecutive tours. Unfortunately, none of his co-stars are quite up to the standard Cooper sets. There actually aren’t any memorable supporting characters. Miller’s turn may have some resonance, but Taya still remains an incredibly benign character.
As you can expect, American Sniper closes with title cards. If you’ve ever been disappointed by films that end with title cards, you can pretty much be sure to hate how Eastwood handles his. Surprisingly, it’s nothing political; instead, a huge chunk of the conclusion is narrated through a quick, one-sentence line. Even worse, that quick synopsis ends up being infinitely more interesting than much of Chris’ later tours, which get kind of monotonous. Even worse is that, with the information being encompassed in that one title card, the film could’ve literally ended at any point after its first act. For once a filmmaker isn’t too hasty to pull the trigger on his story; Eastwood directs American Sniper through the patient scope of a marksman, one who watches his own film get buried under a dust storm of bad screenwriting.