Incurious and hyper-macho, stilted and scandalously blinkered, American Sniper is a solidly-staged, unexceptional picture, crammed with action, heart-pounding moments, and familiar dramatic situations. It’s a gripping, straightforward character study that could have been so much more.
In the wake of 9/11, Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper, The Place Beyond the Pines, Silver Linings Playbook) hones his pinpoint accuracy into a life-saving, battlefield-shredding weapon that turns him into a legend. Despite marriage to Taya Renae (Sienna Miller, Foxcatcher) and the birth of a daughter, Kyle returns to Iraq for four tours of duty and becomes increasingly distant from his family. Unable to adjust fully to civilian life, he begins coaching wounded veterans, stepping toward a tragic demise.
A lesser actor might have made American Sniper into an unthinking piece of jingoism. Cooper, beefed up and twanging like a true Texas cowboy, rarely flinches and never chest-thumps, carrying the full weight of Kyle’s so-called achievements. Stewing, taciturn, and totally precise, he’s poured a lifetime of craft into stilling his character’s heartbeat. American Sniper is a companion piece to The Hurt Locker in subject and theme, but not in quality, and as Kathryn Bigelow’s war triumph found revelatory depths in Jeremy Renner, so American Sniper hinges on Cooper’s restrained yet expressive lead performance. Though it fails at being a great film, it’s no fault of its star.
Tauntingly tough-minded and expertly choreographed in unfussy style, American Sniper is a crackerjack piece of efficient filmmaking, crisply delivered and rarely dull. It’s one propulsive, life-and-death sequence after another, in which sandstorms make the fog of war quite literal. It’s a potent declaration that director Clint Eastwood (Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Letters from Iwo Jima), at 84, can pull off politically apolitical pragmatism, and is not ready to be classified as an old master. Eastwood wisely trains the camera on Cooper’s face and keeps it there.
Still, if Cooper does his utmost to make a one-dimensional character interesting, American Sniper gives the impression of having not so much been directed as dictated: it stares so fixedly down the rifle sight that it is guilty of tunnel vision. The focus on Kyle is so tight that no other character comes through as a person, and the scope is so narrow that larger questions of policy are left entirely off the table. Far from fashioning a critique of US involvement in Iraq, Eastwood seems distracted past the need to show the ramifications of so much killing.
Furthermore, Eastwood adapts Kyle’s memoir by hammering it flat. Despite a delicate handling of Kyle’s internal struggles on home soil, deeper complexity lies just out of frame. Eastwood honours his subject without getting under his skin. Thus, we watch a drama about an idealized soldier, a patriot beyond reproach, which bolsters Kyle’s legend while gutting the man himself. The message is disappointingly diluted, the moral context hampered by a surprisingly blindered view of the world around its central character. Blunt and effective, it’s simply the story of a lone gunslinger facing down his nemesis in a dusty, lawless place.
Films with “American” in the title have an astonishingly successful record at the Oscars: American Beauty swept in 2000, American Graffiti and American Hustle were Picture/Director nominees, and even American History X, American Splendor, and American Gangster landed major hardware. American Sniper is another bald lunge to score more Academy gold. As its American cousins can attest, and lest we forget Shakespeare’s warning: uneasy is the head that wears a crown.