American Sniper movie review: a pawn in the game, misplayed

American Sniper yellow light

A banal, bland tribute to things no one questions as laudable (though it has to misrepresent its subject to do so). But Bradley Cooper is very good.
I’m “biast” (pro): love Bradley Cooper

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

My first thought was: “This isn’t a movie. It’s a eulogy.” I meant it, in my head, metaphorically: American Sniper felt like sitting through a story told at a funeral during which the poor sap of a cousin who got roped into the job is trying to dance around the fact that the deceased was kind of jerk by deploying a bunch of clichéd claptrap about warm cozy mundane things that no one could possibly be crass enough to object to, not at a funeral, fer cripes’ sake. “He liked a good beer.” “His pickup truck was his pride and joy.” “Umm, wife and babies!” (Not actual quotes from the movie, but certainly symbolic ones.)

I didn’t know, as I sat there with the credits rolling, just what kind-of-a-jerk things American Sniper was avoiding in its depiction of real-life Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. But the feeling that it dare not delve too deeply into the psyche of its subject is all over this tepid and surprisingly anticlimactic flick, and it left me wondering what sort of story director Clint Eastwood (Jersey Boys, J. Edgar) and screenwriter Jason Hall (Paranoia) and star and producer Bradley Cooper (Serena, Guardians of the Galaxy) thought they were telling. Or why they chose to tell Kyle’s story in the first place if the key bits of it were to be ignored.

In many literal ways, Sniper is a eulogy, for Kyle — supposedly the “deadliest sniper in U.S. military history” — is dead, far before his time, though he was not killed in post 9/11 Iraq, where he served for many years. If there is a noble part to Kyle’s story, it comes in how, after his four tours of duty, he decided to work with veterans coping with PTSD, perhaps as a way to deny that he himself was suffering from it (or to subconsciously cope with it himself). Kyle was murdered in early 2013 back home in Texas by one of the veterans he was trying to help. This — and pretty much the whole PTSD issue — is treated as a minor footnote inSniper’s tale.

Which is a shame. Because stories about how the fucked-up quagmire of post-9/11 Iraq and Afghanistan has left too many American (and British and other coalition) soldiers — who only thought they were serving their countries, the poor bastards — with long-term psychological (and physical) problems might be the best and fairest ones we Westerners can tell about our side of this idiotic war. And I suspect that maybe that’s what American Sniper is trying to do. Okay, see, the kind-of-a-jerk-shit about the real-life Kyle appears to be that he was basically a psychopath in a uniform, a guy who thought it was “fun” to kill “savages” in Iraq. (I only discovered this after I saw the film.) He appears not to be a guy who thought deeply — or, indeed, at all — about the job he was sent to do in a country his nation invaded on a trumped-up pretext because Yay! We have the biggest guns, and they have oil that should rightfully be ours.

In this movie, though, we get Cooper’s Kyle being awfully worried about whether he is going to have to shoot and kill the little Iraqi kid in his sights, the one who just picked up a rocket launcher. This would not, it seems, have actually bothered the real Kyle for a single instant.

Bradley Cooper’s take on Kyle is more nuanced than the man himself appears to have been. Or, perhaps, Cooper is trying to show us a man who doesn’t realize why he is so badly impacted by his experiences, precisely because he does not think about them, or does not know how to think about them. He is, after all, just a good ol’ boy from Texas whose father commended him, at age eight, for having a talent for putting a bullet into living things from far away. (This is a scene in the movie. And it will mess with a kid. Probably. Right?) Cooper is very good here, with vast oceans of confusing conflict playing across his face at the unlikeliest of times; his quiet despair when a veteran he doesn’t even know calls him a “hero” is heartbreaking.

Alas that Cooper is bringing more to the onscreen character of Kyle than is in the script, which is blithely unconcerned with exploring almost everything it is attempting to be about, no matter how Cooper tries to drag it back toward something substantial with his rooted, raw performance. Cooper brings more than Eastwood does, too: We have to wait till almost the very end for anything approaching a moment that is cinematically suspenseful; c’mon, we’re supposed to believe that Kyle is so addicted to battle that he re-ups four times but Eastwood can’t make us feel this until the final battle sequence? Finally, here, Eastwood give us something we haven’t seen before on film, urban combat that is already tense threatened by an approaching sandstorm that will obliterate any application of strategy. And we at last gain a visceral appreciation for both Kyle’s love of his work — it’s a terrifying love all about taunting danger and cheating death — and his anguish.

A movie like American Sniper is a challenge to me. It clearly blatantly misrepresents its subject, at least as far as how he saw himself, and makes him far more heroic than he deserves to be (but probably less than he would have liked). Yet I think it’s also trying — if also subsequently failing — to explain why he saw himself the way he did, if in a way that he probably wouldn’t even be able to acknowledge or approve of.

I could be wrong. Maybe, American Sniper really is just all Hey, sure, maybe Kyle was a little too suspicious of foreigners, and maybe he was a little too enamored of his guns, but the guy is dead now, right? So we can just let it slide, can’t we? America!

I don’t think we can let it slide, though. I wish this was a smarter analysis of just how bad a disservice we do to our soldiers when we take advantage of their patriotism and send them to do things no one should have to do. I wish it wasn’t such a banal, bland tribute to things no one questions as laudable — family, friendship, country — but only when Americans engage in them.

I think I see a movie not wanting to be so simplistic trying to bust out here, and simply not sure how to do it.

I could be wrong.

See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of American Sniper for its representation of girls and women.

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
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