Title: American Sniper
Great Sniper? Or Greatest Sniper? Great. Look up Simo Häyhä, the Finnish soldier who killed 505 Soviet soldiers in under 100 days.
Rating Using Random Objects Relevant To The Film: Two-and-a-half Tom Berengers out of five.
Brief Plot Synopsis: Ex-cowboy becomes SEAL sniper, is very good at it.
Tagline: "The most lethal sniper in U.S. history."
Better Tagline: "Your rifle is only a tool. It is a hard heart that kills."
Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) was the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history, credited with 160 confirmed kills. He completed four tours of duty in Iraq, where he was christened "The Devil of Ramadi" by the enemy, who put an $80,000 bounty on his head. American Sniper chronicles his service and difficulty adjusting to post-war life with wife Taya (Sienna Miller) and their two children. Kyle would eventually find new purpose in working with fellow veterans with PTSD, one of whom eventually (allegedly) murdered him.
"Critical" Analysis: American Sniper is kind of all over the place.
In and of itself, that's not always a bad thing (*cough* Inherent Vice *cough*), but when trying to tell a story as woven into our recent history as Chris Kyle's, it can make things problematic.
We'll start with what works. Director Clint Eastwood teases the film's most powerful moments out of the juxtaposition between Kyle's lethal precision in Iraq with his inability to come to grips with peacetime at home. Kyle was a man of deeply held religious values who joked about the "savages" he killed. However, he was clearly shaken by the intimacy that comes with watching the person you kill through telescopic sights.
I also wasn't prepared to like Cooper as much as I did. I mean, he was cool in Wet Hot American Summer and The Midnight Meat Train and all, but his marquee projects have always left me cold, if not annoyed me outright. As Kyle, though, he's operating at a level we haven't seen from him before. And as much as I wanted to distance myself from a movie that -- from its marketing -- looked like armed forces fetishizing, Cooper's performance keeps the audience invested.
The thing is, Kyle's story should be compelling enough without the need for dramatic embellishment. Eastwood avoids presenting several of Kyle's tales, some of which (killing two carjackers then getting a pass from local law enforcement) are less ludicrous than others (shooting looters from atop the New Orleans Superdome in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina), yet for some reason he manufactures a prolonged cat-and-mouse game between Kyle and a mysterious sniper named "Mustafa," a person who merits two whole sentences in Kyle's book.
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And the elaboration goes both ways. Eastwood clearly provides the cinematic version of Chris Kyle with a level of self-doubt the man's memoir (yes, I've read it) shows little evidence of. In real life, or at least according to his book, the Iraqis were evil savages who wanted all Christians dead, Christians like Kyle and his fellow soldiers, and Kyle enjoyed killing them. In the film, Kyle is visibly troubled, finally confessing to his wife he's "ready to come home" after the nasty climactic firefight in Sadr City (complete with dramatic sandstorm action).
Is a biopic dishonest if it attempts to make its subject more introspective than he likely was in real life? The cinematic Kyle's growing unease and uncertainty in the film are at odds with the enthusiastic killer of his memoir, and while Eastwood doesn't outright call the rationale behind sending U.S. troops to Iraq bullshit, there are enough asides and conversational excerpts to make his position clear. Frankly, I think it's disingenuous to whitewash Kyle's more outlandish claims, especially if -- as I suspect -- Kyle's later lies might have been a side effect of his PTSD.
Though now that I think about it, I really don't need to see the alleged Jesse Ventura altercation.
In the end, Eastwood is in a no-win scenario. I understand the motivation of the guy who made Unforgiven and Letters From Iwo Jima to say something about the corrosive effects of violence and war, but he has to balance that with the fact his subject apparently didn't feel the same way, and so American Sniper never commits fully to Eastwood's mission or the "USA! USA!" message its detractors mistakenly think the movie is broadcasting.