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Review: American Sniper (2014)

American Sniper (2014)

Directed by: Clint Eastwood

Premise: Based on the memoir by Chris Kyle. Kyle joins the Navy SEALs and becomes a sniper. When he is sent to Iraq, Kyle achieves the greatest number of confirmed kills in the history of the United States military but when he returns home he has trouble adjusting to civilian life.

What Works: American Sniper is a challenging title to review because it is a problematic movie but it is also undeniably accomplished as a piece of cinema. Much of the film takes place in Iraq during the American occupation and the battle scenes are executed with a great deal of skill. This is the most visceral film from director Clint Eastwood since Mystic River and he does not shy away from the horrific details of warfare. The climactic battle in which American soldiers must hold off insurgents amid an incoming sandstorm is one of the best action sequences in the recent history of war pictures. As a matter of storytelling, American Sniper builds very well. The movie alternates Kyle’s deployments with his home front experiences and the trajectory of his marriage is among the film’s strongest points. As dramatized in Amercian Sniper, Kyle was torn between his call to serve and his obligations to his family. That conflict plays out very effectively in the performances of Sienna Miller and Bradley Cooper. Together they make a credible couple but it is Cooper who defines American Sniper. This is by far his best performance. Aside from the combat sequences, the strongest part of American Sniper is the film’s portrayal of Kyle’s post-traumatic stress. As he is dramatized in this film, Kyle was haunted by what he’s done but also by the possibility that he is missing out and the film is an impressive take on the realities of the warrior myth.

What Doesn’t: As accomplished as American Sniper is as a piece of cinema, the movie also has serious problems. For one, it is based on a book whose author has been discredited. While much of the book has been corroborated, the source of this movie is tainted but the filmmakers do not address this problem. Whether it is possible to be a war hero and a liar is a worthy question but the filmmakers don’t even try to address it. They’ve created a compelling piece of drama but as an adaption of a memoir and a portrayal of a historical figure, American Sniper simplifies the complexities of its subject. The controversy over American Sniper has led some critics to accuse it of being war propaganda while others praise it as a tribute to a veteran. Neither of those assessments is accurate. Aside from the credibility issues, the movie distorts history insofar as it implicitly suggests a connection between Iraq and the September 11th attack; the movie juxtaposes the destruction of the Twin Towers with Kyle in the thick of the Iraq War and Kyle himself echoes the pro-war talking points of that era. However, the film’s dramatization of PTSD is inconsistent with the war propaganda label. That inconsistency is the real problem here. It seems that Clint Eastwood wasn’t sure if he was making Flags of Our Fathers or Dirty Harry. There is a lot of both movies in American Sniper. Like Eastwood’s World War II film, American Sniper deals with the contrast between the battlefield and the home front and the struggles of soldiers to reintegrate into civilian life. However, there is also a lot of Dirty Harry in American Sniper. Eastwood’s 1971 action classic was about a cop who uses his firearm with no regard for due process and must stop a psychopath who is killing women with a sniper rifle. This is exactly the scenario in American Sniper, in which our hero shoots the enemy with impunity and tracks an insurgent sniper who preys on American soldiers. There is a palatable tension between the Flags of Our Fathers portions of American Sniper and the aspects of it that are directly lifted from Dirty Harry. This tension nags at the integrity of the movie.

Bottom Line: As a piece of cinema, American Sniper has a lot in it to be admired and Bradley Cooper’s performance is great. However, the movie is neither a pro-war film nor an anti-war film. Instead it is an attempt to deal with the trauma of war that shoots itself in the foot by succumbing to action movie thrills and ignoring the complexities of its subject.

Episode: #527 (February 1, 2015)

Note: For more on American Sniper, read this commentary.