Film Review – American Sniper (2015)

February 2, 2015 3:11 pm

Seth Rogen made quite an interesting point about Clint Eastwood’s new film on Twitter the other day: “American Sniper kind of reminds me of the movie that’s showing in the third act of Inglorious Basterds.”  The movie he’s referring to in Tarantino’s World War 2 opera is Joseph Goebbel’s Nazi propaganda film which depicts a German sniper killing over 200 American troops over the course of three days in front of a jovial crowd of Nazi officers – and he’s not entirely without reason.  American Sniper does portray an element of ‘look at this hero killing all the bad guys’ – could it really be avoided with a main character labelled as the most lethal sniper in US history? – but to compare it to Nazi propaganda, albeit fictional, is a bit extreme.  The film doesn’t glamorise Chris Kyle’s actions, but simply shows them for what they were, good and bad.  He was a brilliant marksman, a loving husband and father, and a devoted patriot; but he was also a flawed human being like any of us.  The big achievement here is that, despite the flag waving, we’re allowed to draw our own conclusions on the definition of ‘hero’.

Kyle’s story really is quite remarkable.  Based on the book he released after serving his fourth tour in Iraq with the Navy Seals, and hence coming from a first person perspective, American Sniper is an incredibly personal film.  A regular criticism thrown at Eastwood’s Jersey Boys last year was the lack of affection for the characters and their music, but there’s no such consideration here; we can tell Eastwood cares about the story he’s telling and those involved in it through the way in which he devotes attention and balance to every aspect of the man’s life.  He reveres Kyle, yet also shows the unimaginable things he had to do to “defend his country”.  Equally, listening to Bradley Cooper talk about it you can see he really feels a connection with Kyle, that he was more than just acting the part.  The combination of the two means we’re watching something with a pulse.

On the point of Cooper, he’s really quite terrific.  The power of his performance in Sniper is the way in which he portrays the ever so slow descent into madness that Kyle experienced as war and patriotism took over his life.  It’s played so subtly and nuanced, which paradoxically makes it so effective; it’s the little things like an expression when he realises his friend has just died, the way his face glazes over, or a slight shift of the eyes upon hearing regular, day-to-day noises while on leave back home.  The sound of a lawnmower revving up will turn him into a dog standing to attention.  It’s a prepared and embodied performance created through hard work and lengthy conversations with Kyle’s family, and worthy of the recent Oscar best actor nod.

Every so often the film threatens to become a bit ‘Hollywoodized’, to use a general term, as it toys with an occasionally obtrusive soundtrack and depicts Kyle’s path towards the military as something like a superhero yearning for revenge – things like gritting teeth as he watches the 9/11 attacks stand out.  Basically, every so often it almost becomes a Michael Bay movie, but thankfully it never tips over and in the end plays out as a mature and powerful study of the effects war has on soldiers and those around them, both before and after they sign up.  If Bay had directed it it would have been exactly as Seth Rogen said: an American sniper exploding the heads of hundreds of terrorists to the Star-Spangled Banner, only an hour longer.

Although it is quite flag wavey at the end – and British critics hate American flag waving – it really isn’t a problem on the film’s part.  This is America, patriotism epitomized, and this is all true: the footage over the credits is real.  It’s an exposé of war as much as it is an action movie and inspirational biography, with a couple of tremendously gut-punching, hard to watch sequences that feel necessary and truthful rather than gratuitous.  In the current global political climate, Sniper has already caused plenty of debate and will continue to do so, but that’s what the best films do, and Eastwood and Cooper will undoubtedly be happy with what they’ve achieved.  Yet regardless of whether you want to look at it politically or creatively, American Sniper is a powerful and emotional piece of work that’s leaving cinemas in silence all across the world.

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