Directed by Clint Eastwood.
Rated R, 132 minutes.
When we meet Chris Kyle (Cooper), he's just a good ol' Texas boy who competes in rodeos. He sees a news report on a terrorist attack where Americans were killed and decides he wants to do his part to protect our freedom. He marches himself down to the local Navy recruiter and not only volunteers, but signs up for the Navy SEALs, arguably the most elite special forces in the world. In rather quick succession, he becomes a full-fledged SEAL, meets and falls in love with Taya (Miller), 9/11 happens, he and Taya get married, and he ships off to war. We then follow him on many military excursions and struggle to keep his marriage afloat when he's home. As you may know by now, this is based on a true story.
From a visual standpoint, the combat scenes, of which there are plenty, are magnificent. Each shot that hits its target resonates as the true ending or irrevocable altering of a life. The rest of what happens during these scenes is also gorgeously shot. The one misstep, however, is a large one. Certain tactics used by our hero and his team gives us a climactic scene we can't see. The way it plays out, this is meant to create tension. Done correctly, this could work as it does in the Spanish horror flick REC and its American remake Quarantine. Here, it's just a source of frustration as we try to make out figures in the dense orange fog. It should have that effect on the people they're fighting, not on the viewing audience. Aside from this cinematic faux pas, and the now infamous fake baby scene, it's equally beautiful and brutal to look at.
The old adage says 'beauty is only skin deep.' It certainly applies, here. The film's aesthetic charms are in service of a story that never dives beneath the surface. Neither does it give us sufficient reason to care. The culprit is a mismatch between screenplay and director. What the screenplay does is in stark contrast to the director's abilities. One of Clint Eastwood's greatest strengths as a film-maker is patient story-telling. Movies like Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby, and Gran Torino unfold slowly, letting us get to know and become invested in their characters. In American Sniper, any parts of the story that don't involve combat are sprinted through or glossed over. It's lazy writing that leaves entirely too much up to how the audience feels before having seen this movie. For instance, the movie assumes the viewer is in full support of America's involvement in the Middle East. It positions this as the only stance a patriot could take. Who or what anyone is actually fighting to accomplish is completely ignored. We're merely told that the guys in fatigues are the good guys and everyone of Middle Eastern descent is a bad guy. If you ask for reasons why, the movie can only shrug its shoulders like an annoyed parent and reply "Because I said so."
This complete lack of examination is evident on a micro level, as well. The soldiers themselves are all cardboard cutouts. They exist either to be saved by not be saved by Kyle. On those few occasions when one of them makes a statement or asks a question that hints at something deeper Kyle, and the movie by extension, blows him off by reiterating that being in total and unquestionable agreement with the mission is the only right answer. Any doubt is punishable by death as these people generally don't live much past such heinous insubordination. This includes people whose reason for consternation stems from their religion. Even those that dare look forward to life away from the battlefield suffer stiff consequences. Those on the other side are a faceless and primal glob of evil. So anonymous are they, we can only identify two of them, both by their preferred method of killing and/or maiming. They are referred to as savages several times without verbal or physical rebuttal. Not one is given a redeeming quality to call their own, nor any chance to even share why they feel the way they do.
All of this feeds the beast that is the biggest problem with American Sniper. It unabashedly deifies Chris Kyle. The fact that as a sniper, he's often perched high above the fray serves to highlight this fact. He is quite literally the man upstairs doling out salvation and damnation as he sees fit. In case we aren't sure this is what's going on various things happen to reinforce the notion. For starters, there's his nickname. Shortly after he arrives in Iraq, he earns the moniker 'Legend,' and is referred to as such through much of the film. As it implies, everyone speaks to and about him in reverential terms. He takes control of every situation without any resistance, much less opposition, and always knows exactly what to do.When away from war, the film pretends to show him dealing with PTSD, It never really does. Instead, his one flaw is revealed and it's not a flaw at all. His biggest problem is that there is only one of him and he can't save everyone. The good doctor points him the direction of more people to help and suddenly he's all better. Very near the end of the movie, Taya informs him how great a husband and dad he is now that he's completely "back" and that she knows how hard he worked to get there. Unfortunately, we don't. To me, this is where the movie should have given us empathy for Chris and the entire Kyle family (Taya plus two kids we barely meet) by humanizing him. Instead, anything even remotely compelling about the man is lost in the three years the film decided to skip.
The relentless hero worship on display renders the performances of our leads hollow. Sienna Miller, as Taya, tries mightily to ground the movie in some sort of emotion and gives the film's best portrayal. Understandably, she's worried about her husband and her family. Unfortunately, neither her husband nor the movie gives her anything in return. When she asks direct questions of him, he says nothing. Granted, this is a fairly normal occurrence in households all over the world, but at some point, something has to be said. In American Sniper, it never is. Bradley Cooper's work is effected by this issue even more. It's not that he does sub-par work because that's not at all true (except for the fake baby scene). It's that he is given no help in bringing any sort of depth to his character. He is an infallible god who has come to Earth to fight evil alongside us mere mortals. Cooper is not playing Chris Kyle, the human being. He's playing Legend, the martyr.
And just so you don't think I'm joking about the fake baby...