Eastwood Grazes Target With "American Sniper"

It’s impractical to discuss Chris Kyle – author and subject of the bestselling American Sniper and the focus of Clint Eastwood’s screen adaptation – without discussing his fate, an endpoint that cast a harsh light on an extraordinary life. Those who wish to remain in the dark should stop here.

Kyle – the most lethal sniper in United States history – was gunned down in February 2013 by an unstable war veteran he was trying to help. The legend – actually nicknamed “Legend” – with over 160 confirmed kills, the man revered by his peers as a god, was ended by veritable friendly fire. Just miles from his home. It was an unthinkable finish to a much-ballyhooed life.

Chris Kyle might not have been the conflicted hero that Clint Eastwood’s film paints him as – he was on record as having enjoyed his work – but the film is an obvious royal flush in terms of material. What a thing to be blessed (or cursed) with a talent for killing people. Combined with life-and-death stakes, explosive action, and familial drama, it’s a story bursting with cinematic potential. The only question – what would an 84 year-old Clint Eastwood do with it?

Like his other 2014 release, “Jersey Boys,” “American Sniper” is an unfussy slow pitch softball that mostly works because of its simplicity. It begins with Kyle (Bradley Cooper, “American Hustle”) in the middle of a combat zone, rifle trained on a young boy, before backtracking to the lead’s cowboy roots, building the story from the ground up.

Before long, the woman who would become Mrs. Taya Renae Kyle (Sienna Miller, “Layer Cake”) is introduced, complicating Kyle’s newfound life as a SEAL. As penned by screenwriter Jason Hall, their romance is a modest one, but it’s a nice foil for the dusted up battlefield of the Middle East. It’s a relationship drawn in small moments, from an unremarkable meet-cute to a wedding interrupted by news of impending deployment.

The film isn’t thrown off its axis until kids enter the picture. Kyle first becomes father to a son, then a daughter, much of it blurring together with his second and third tours of duty – and the questionable appearance of one very fake looking baby. As Bradley Cooper clutches an infant to his chest in an ostensibly tender moment, the utter lifelessness of the prop rubber doll will pull many viewers entirely out of the scene. It’s embarrassing and it belies the pic’s otherwise sturdy production values.

Yet, Cooper is very good in the film, bulking up to built fat status, mostly nailing Kyle’s southern lilt, and selling the inner turmoil of a family left behind. But as the screenplay meanders in act three, we’re left to wonder if the film has anything left to say. An obviously fictionalized subplot featuring a rival Syrian sniper feels left over from Steven Spielberg’s version of the film – he was set to direct in 2013 – and the screenplay struggles to build on the devastating tension of its first half.

Once Kyle comes home for the last time, Eastwood shows the effects of his PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) via audio and video cues that lack any real insight into the condition. For a man who saw a war through the scope of a rifle, the newfound mundaneness of his life is interesting, but it was portrayed far more effectively in the waning, wordless moments of Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker.”

The final ten minutes are more effective, if a little misleading, fit for conversation and interpretations aplenty. The way things end isn’t narratively satisfying, but how could it be? As Kyle fades from existence – much like the title character of an actual recent Spielberg film – some will reflect, others will shrug.

“American Sniper” is a void of experimentation that tells a gripping story in a straightforward way, settling for documentation over interpretation. Its revolving door of supporting characters puts the spotlight fully on Cooper and Miller – and they both deliver – but 130 minutes is a lot of screen time for a mere two characters. Eastwood’s advanced age makes the film feel like a bigger success than it is – most younger directors would be hard-pressed to hit the same high notes – but it’s a worthy effort all the same. If only it were as remarkable as the life of its subject.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: December 25, 2014 (Limited)
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenwriter: Jason Hall
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Keir O’Donnell
MPAA Rating: R (for strong and disturbing war violence, and language throughout including some sexual references)