It’s hard to make an apolitical film about the current state of the American military overseas. Go too far in one direction is to lose sight of the objectives and ethical pitfalls of the war. Go too far in the other direction and one loses sight of the men and women caught in the middle of a mess they were sent in to fix that they never started in the first place. Clint Eastwood does almost too admirable of a job of portraying real life soldier Chris Kyle in American Sniper as a cipher caught in a larger battle, but the positively transformative work of Bradley Cooper in the leading role makes up for the film’s shortcomings as a whole.
Based on Chris Kyle’s memoirs, the film recounts his life as the most successful sniper in recorded U.S. military history, boasting 160 confirmed kills. Eastwood, Cooper (who also functions as a producer), and writer Jason Hall follow former rodeo rider Kyle from his improbable joining the military at age 30 right after 9/11 to his becoming a Navy SEAL to becoming so good at his job that he has a hefty bounty placed on his head by insurgents. Meanwhile, Kyle’s wife and mother to his children, Taya (Sienna Miller), can only stay home pregnant and constantly wondering if her husband will come back alive. Following his honourable discharge in 2009, Kyle would initially struggle with slight PTSD before becoming a veterans advocate and volunteer.
Having read the copy of Kyle’s memoirs that were sent to me during the recent awards season blitz, I can safely say that Eastwood and company have soften the real life Kyle’s harder edges and beliefs. Kyle was a proud soldier who believed in the mission, but Eastwood’s version of the story paints a greater internal and external conflict. Eastwood isn’t interested in painting a jingoistic portrait of war. He’s more energized by talking about the role of the individual; the internal monologue of the man who keeps the other men safe from harm. It’s an interesting approach, but one that Eastwood has trouble sticking with beyond a few scenes where some people think the war is great (annoying co-workers of Kyle’s who think blowing people away is cool, but who would never pull the trigger themselves) and those who think it’s an unjust cause (particularly a brief, but moving scene where Kyle meets with his fellow soldier brother in passing on an air base).
A lot of the heavy lifting comes from Cooper, who kind of took this role on himself as a more of a personal passion project than it was for Eastwood. That dedication shows. Cooper’s remarkable physicality – looking every inch like a badass, good-ol-boy shitkicker – to his quiet moments after he takes another life suggest a man who isn’t programmed to robotic emotions despite the cut and dry nature of his job. There’s a struggle, but a subtle one. That’s harder to convey than having Kyle brag about his accomplishments (which he does in his book quite a bit) or portraying Kyle’s post-service career as being fraught with breakdowns and crying jags. Cooper is portraying a realistic soldier and not the flashy Hollywood equivalent of one.
The film itself, unfortunately, isn’t a good fit for Eastwood’s notorious “we’re doing one take and one take only” style of filmmaking. Couple that with some dodgy CGI (particularly during a climactic sandstorm) and Eastwood’s general unease with constructing an action sequence, and the project always feels slightly off. I don’t think Eastwood has lost it as a director, but this film feels chronically distracted. Similarly, the screenplay can’t decide between stark realism and hoary dramatic convention. It all culminates in the film’s worst scene: a scene where one of Kyle’s brothers in arms describes how he’s about to buy his girlfriend an engagement ring before an all too obvious firefight. And the less said about Sienna Miller’s role, the better. She’s literally just on hand to look concerned, be pregnant, and cry. There’s nothing here to be said for the role of the spouse left behind. It’s just a superfluous counterpoint.
Then there’s the extremely problematic final scene and abrupt conclusion that sends the film out on a face plant. Without spoiling how Kyle’s story ends for those who haven’t seen it (and something that takes place well after his memoirs), it suddenly decides to showcase the fact that the main character really wasn’t a nice guy before just smashing into a brick wall. It’s a bizarre choice for a conclusion that sours the movie quite a bit, especially considering that the woeful final scene could be axed and the abrupt ending could have happened at any point in the film. It’s a poor final point on an already structurally unsound film, but Cooper makes it continually worth it.