Sunday, January 25, 2015

American Sniper / *** (R)

Chris Kyle: Bradley Cooper
Taya: Sienna Miller
Dauber: Kevin Lacz
Biggles: Jake McDorman
Dandridge: Cory Hardict
Marc Lee: Luke Grimes
Goat-Winston: Kyle Gallner
Jeff Kyle: Keir O’Donnell

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Jason Hall. Based on the memoir by Chris Kyle and Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice. Running time: 132 min. Rated R (for strong and disturbing war violence, and language throughout including some sexual references).

I find myself approaching my review of Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” in much the same way I think the filmmakers approached the material themselves—vey carefully. “American Sniper” has been a runaway hit with audiences and grabbed a surprise 6 Oscar nominations after an awards season where it barely made an impression elsewhere. It tells the story of real life U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, who is credited as the deadliest American sniper in history. It is based on his own memoir of the same name. A veteran he was trying to help killed Kyle on a shooting range in 2013.

Eastwood’s movie has found great praise from audiences and some criticism from celebrities claiming it glorifies war and killing. I don’t believe it does either of those things, but it may be guilty of memorializing Kyle’s triumphs without really delving too deeply into his tribulations. It covers the problems of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and some of Kyle’s own personal psychological struggles, but it feels like it’s playing softball on those issues while heavily detailing his combat experience in the Iraq War.

Opening with a harrowing scene—which can be seen in most of the film’s trailers—the tough choices a sniper must make are made frighteningly clear. Depicting Kyle’s first kill, he must decide whether or not to shoot a child who threatens an American tank column with a highly explosive grenade. The scene details the protocol of such a situation as Kyle asks repeatedly for confirmation of what he sees. Without any other visual confirmation from any other source, Kyle must decide for himself whether this child is a viable threat or not. This is a choice that should be left to no single person, but sometimes it must be.

From that point the story flashes back to Kyle’s own childhood. Growing up in Texas, many of the edicts of his adult choices can be traced back to his father’s lessons. After a schoolyard fight where Kyle saves his brother from a bully by hitting harder, their father explains the roles of a sheep flock. It is clear that Kyle sees America as his flock, which he must protect from the wolves as one of its sheepdogs. With over 150 confirmed kills in the Middle East, Kyle always hit harder than the wolves. Some of the celebrities that have come out against the film as some sort of propaganda may be confusing Kyle for a sheep in wolves’ clothing. While a late night comedian’s job in protecting the flock is to eek out those wolves hidden within the flock, Bill Maher misunderstands the difference between the wolves and the sheepdog here. The violence of both has him identifying them each as the same thing, while missing the inherent evil of the wolf to sacrifice their own no matter what. While the sheepdog here is warped by the violence of his deeds, he is never willing to sacrifice one of his own flock, only himself.

It is this area where Kyle has been damaged by his violent job, however, where the film falls somewhat flat. While Eastwood and his screenwriter, Jason Hall, make very clear the operating procedure, Kyle’s mastery of his role as a sniper and his skill as a SEAL, and the terrible choices he must make in those roles; their handling of the negative psychological effects of this on his personal and family life are muddy to say the least. While they’re willing to acknowledge this dark aspect of Kyle’s journey, they also seem unwilling to take any risks in depicting his demons.

Take for example his relationship with his wife Taya, played by Sienna Miller. We see how much it hurts her that he chooses to return for four tours in the Middle East. We see her plead with him and bite her tongue, but we never see them actually fight about it, which surely they did. Both Miller and Cooper deserved nominations for their roles here, only Cooper secured one; but it feels as if the filmmakers didn’t want to offend any surviving family members by going deeper into their married life.

Another weakness in the filmmaking can be found in Eastwood’s notoriously efficient directorial style. While it serves the underwritten scenes between Cooper and Miller well, one scene in particular involves their baby daughter. Eastwood likes to shoot fast and rumor has it that the baby they had for the scene was sick that day, so she was substituted with a doll. The prop is so obviously a doll that it distracts from the emotional impact of the scene. In another case of rushed filmmaking, the climactic battle scene—which takes place in enemy territory in the heart of a city—utilizes subpar CGI effects. In a dramatic overhead shot, intended to set up the geography of the sequence, it is all too obvious that the vehicles and people in the shot were added digitally.

To be sure, Eastwood and company have assembled a remarkable action picture honoring a real life American hero. The movie’s depiction of the role of the sniper in modern combat is engaging and tense. It brings into question just what damage we might be inflicting on our soldiers with multiple tours of duty and by engaging an enemy with a vastly different outlook on right and wrong. The film works dramatically, although its resolution of these questions shirks their complicated nature. “American Sniper” is a great memorial to Chris Kyle, but it may have served him and our many war veterans better not to pull its punches.

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