Director Clint Eastwood’s ‘American Sniper’ is a well-produced and acted war picture, but one that can’t decide whether it’s an action film or
a character drama. The best films in the genre meld the two to perfection as Steven Spielberg’s ‘Saving Private Ryan’ or Kathryn Bigelow’s
‘The Hurt Locker’ did. Others, such as Ridley Scott’s ‘Black Hawk Down’ or even Peter Berg’s recent ‘Lone Survivor,’ work as a pure
adrenaline rush of intense action and thrills. ‘Sniper’ is decent at both, but in no way exceptional. It barely feels notable on the spectrum of
The centerpiece of the film is Bradley Cooper’s performance as real life Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, who became a legend thanks to his
Cooper is outstanding in the role, seamlessly transforming himself from a charming Texan cowboy, to a dedicated soldier, to a detached
veteran obsessed with assassinating a rival al-Qaeda sniper.
Although Cooper is very good, the film, especially early on, establishes his character using incredibly tired clichés. I understand this is
based on a true story, but sequences showing his tough-as-nails father imparting his philosophies on defending the weak feel contrived
and flimsy, with the screenplay practically bludgeoning us over the head with the film’s thematic message.
There’s also a ‘defining’ moment when Kyle watches a tragedy on TV and is immediately compelled to enlist. “Look what they did to us,” he
laments. Eastwood stops short of overtly patriotic cheese, but the idea itself is portrayed in a shallow way.
Much of the film also revolves around Kyle’s wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), and their relationship. While essential to painting a full portrait of
Kyle’s life, these sequences never resonate. They feel generic and dilute the focus of the film. Wouldn’t it be more striking if the Iraq
sequences were given greater emphasis? Kyle’s return home would provide a far more jarring contrast. ‘The Hurt Locker’ comes to mind
with its unsettling look at life after service.
In ‘American Sniper,’ Eastwood’s portrayal of post-traumatic stress feels very much the same as every movie that has come before it. Kyle is
startled by noises and can’t seem to concentrate on normal everyday tasks.
There is one particularly effective scene where Kyle is recognized by a veteran while at an auto body shop with his son. The sequence
expertly builds tension as Kyle’s irritability and discomfort mount. In this moment, we can feel the suffocating stress in Cooper’s
The sequences in Iraq fair a bit better than the ones stateside, but also lack a solid focus. There are multiple sequences where Kyle must
decide whether to take a shot or not (The best being an intense moment when Kyle races to save a young boy before he’s killed with a drill
by an al-Qaeda commander known as “The Butcher”). On occasion these scenes feel tangential, as they basically amount to random
In response to this, the film plays up the continued presence of master al-Qaeda sniper, Mustafa.
This could have worked as a fascinating exploration of Kyle building an antagonist/rival in his head (He becomes obsessed with taking
Mustafa out). Instead, Eastwood portrays Mustafa as a villainous James Bond henchman, glaring with menace and leaping across rooftops.
He is given too much screen time for a character that probably should have remained a faceless presence lurking in the shadows.
Compared to the best war films, Eastwood’s film feels artificial. It lacks the raw grittiness to truly immerse the viewer in the hostile world of
the film. This applies to the fairly tame levels of blood and violence, as well as the immaculately sharp photography.
The film also features a terrible score composed by Eastwood and Joseph DeBeasi, alternating between distorted noises and baffling drum
At the very least, however, ‘American Sniper’ is a serviceable look at military service and the life of the most deadly sniper in US history. It
just doesn’t stand among the best in the genre.
An interesting question to ask in analyzing the film is whether it is primarily a war film or a biography of Kyle. I think the filmmakers would
say it is primarily a biopic, but the character’s origins are riddled with clichés, and it’s not until very late that the character’s psychology
finally becomes an effective element.
None of this is to say ‘American Sniper’ is a poor film, however.
Cooper is fantastic, the film is consistently engaging throughout, it’s very well-edited and the sound design and mixing is superb. The
action is sporadically thrilling and the drama occasionally powerful. Unfortunately, ‘American Sniper’ doesn’t form the gripping and poignant
overall experience it should. There is a lot of talent involved in just about every aspect of this film, but the overall impression is lacking.
While it’s likely to satisfy those looking for a patriotic tribute to a tragic hero, ‘American Sniper’ is only an above-average film that lacks both
the genuine emotion and thrills to truly excel.
* * ½
(out of four)
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Written by: Jason Hall
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Luke Grimes,
Jake McDorman, Kyle Gallner, Cory Hardrict
Music by: Clint Eastwood and Joseph DeBeasi
Cinematography by: Tom Stern
Released: January 16, 2015; 132 Minutes