Chris Kyle’s autobiography American Sniper was endlessly popular, or at least it sold an awful lot of copies. If I had the will, desire and numbers this is where I’d throw in some clever calculation that said he has sold ‘x’ copies of his book for every kill that he recorded on the battle field. But I won’t. Plus, I should say, that his publisher sold, because of course we know what happened to Mr. Kyle, and if not you can easily look it up. It isn’t meant to be some kind of surprise in the film. It’s common knowledge. That being said, Clint Eastwood’s ‘American Sniper’ is a film that basically brings this autobiography of the most legendary American sniper to life. The fact that it is in the list of Best Picture nominees suggests that it is a great film, and for the most part I suppose it is. But let’s talk about that.
This is a hard review to write if I’m honest. My opinion about the film is hard to tie down, because as the researchers among you, and those who watch the news, will know, there is a lot of controversy surrounding Mr Kyle, his book and this film. His reliability as a narrator is being questioned. The films motives are being questioned and it’s being called a propaganda piece. I have my views on all of this, and of course it’s causing my opinion of the film to be warped, so I will try to keep this bias free and score based on the film’s merits as a movie.
Right off the bat, whatever Chris Kyle was like, from what I’ve seen of him, Bradley Cooper did a really, really good job portraying him. Both physically and with the attitude and demeanor. It wasn’t the most subtle and nuanced performance I’ve ever seen, but from what I’ve seen, the real Chris Kyle didn’t really come across as a very subtle guy. He’d say that himself in his writings. Cooper was charming but tough and driven, and he went through a full range of emotions really well. The best part of his performance was the way he was able to make us realize the denial Kyle was in about his issues, without explicitly saying so. That was really well done.
The rest of the cast worked well also. Sienna Miller was good as Mrs. Kyle, and his fellow soldiers all put in solid turns. The acting was a check overall, in terms of all the boxes that a great film needs to fill. The story itself is pretty simplistic. A sniper goes on missions, kills terrorists in the Middle East, and a lot of them. Of course, the story ramps up when the film attempts to develop this kind of personal vendetta, and sniper vs. sniper situation that I find hard to believe was accurate. Either way, it did suck you in, and the idea that these two incredible snipers were on opposite sides was enthralling. Perhaps I’ll read up and discover it was accurate, which will make it all the more interesting.
The battle scenes themselves were pretty well done I thought. Sometimes close to spectacular, yet simple and realistic. The thrills and horrors were there, and were shown in a pretty close up, visceral way. The added moral dilemmas, such as the young child with a grenade in Kyle’s sniper sight that we see in the trailer, add to the suspense and sad reality that the film presents. A few scenes in the film really do pull no punches, and one moment in particular presents an awful reality about the savage nature of war and modern terrorism. It certainly adds an emotional punch.
I don’t agree with criticism of the film that it was pure propaganda against Muslim’s and for our military presence. Not entirely. But it is certainly a one-sided film, and is clear in what it supports. This is evident and unfortunately damages the complexity of the film sometimes. Even though we see moral dilemmas, such as Kyle having to decide if he wants to kill a grenade wielding child or not, are presented, they’ve always been doctored and set up well so they we know how to feel. Or at least we’re pushed strongly in one direction. It is an unsettling feeling to be honest, and while I didn’t always notice it right away, it diminished my admiration and enjoyment of the film a bit. Also, as I’ve come to expect from a Clint Eastwood film (at least his more recent films), he is very heavy handed quite often. Gran Torino was a good film, but there was very little subtlety in it’s message or execution. Hereafter. Invictus. All the same. American Sniper was no different, and while I did like it more than those films, I’ve never been a fan of the heavy handed approach.
I also didn’t love the way some of the films key moments were handled. I won’t go into spoiler level detail, but the big moments are done in a way that just doesn’t fit with the more realistic and grounded presentation of the battlefield that Eastwood manages so well for most of the film. For some reason he tries to make these moments stylistically different, almost cartoonish, and it really cost the film some credibility. Then near the films conclusion, it seemed like he decided to just cram a bunch of meaningful content from the book, regarding what happened upon Kyle’s return from the war, into about 5 minutes. It was a shame, and I’d probably rather have seen them cut some of the battle sequences back, and spend a little more time in the most interesting part of the story. I’m sure many disagree, but that’s how I see it.
Overall, American Sniper is a pretty good film. Very good perhaps. If you’re careful to take it for what it is, and try not to let too much of the outside nonsense spoil it, it certainly helps. But some would argue that if a supposed true to life film is not exactly that, that should count against it. Perhaps. Some might want to take it as a piece of fiction and just enjoy it. That works better in this case, but that’s a personal choice for the viewer. However you view it, Chris Kyle’s life was interesting and significant, and Clint Eastwood made a good film about it. It’s the weakest of the Oscar nominations for Best Picture, but I think it’s probably worthy. Probably. If I could bump it for Nightcrawler though, I would.