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American Sniper




American Sniper (R)
Film Reviews by Amy Diaz

01/22/15
By Amy Diaz adiaz@hippopress.com



American Sniper (R)

Bradley Cooper is Chris Kyle, a U.S. Navy SEAL who was the most lethal sniper in U.S. history, in American Sniper, a Clint Eastwood movie about, er, something.
I mean, it’s a biopic of Kyle, I’m pretty sure about that. Though the opening scenes feature Kyle in Iraq, the movie quickly flashes back to his childhood, when he is deer hunting and learning valuable lessons about the three kinds of people in this world: sheep, wolves and sheepdogs. Kyle’s dad (Ben Reed) goes on to explain how the sheepdogs have a responsibility to protect the herd from predators in an endless-seeming scene that feels like it was cribbed from some 1950s B-movie Shane rip-off. Also endless are the many scenes — scenes offering information a better editor should have been able to communicate with less fluff and in less time — that show us Kyle and his brother working as cowboys and rodeo performers, Kyle deciding to join the military, Kyle during the difficult SEAL training, Kyle meeting and courting his eventual wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), and Kyle and Taya watching in horror the news footage on 9/11. And then their wedding. And then we get to Kyle and combat in Iraq, where Kyle is a sniper who provides cover for soldiers doing house-to-house searches.  
Kyle is an excellent sniper whose presence helps ease the anxieties of the men on the ground, so others tell him. But even his spotting and shooting skills can’t help him save everybody and we see the loss of men weigh on him — at least, that’s what I think we’re supposed to see. And not just soldiers; Kyle is (again, I think?) also weighed down by the people whose lives he is compelled to end, such as the woman and young boy whom we see in the film’s opening moments. He must make a decision about their purpose — if they’re about to attack a group of U.S. soldiers, it’s his duty and his calling to shoot them. But if he’s wrong about this, he will have to live with killing the very kinds of people he’s supposed to protect. (Actually, that’s just my guess about what weighs on Kyle. The movie makes this reading of Kyle — that some enemy deaths are also tough on him — possible but not absolutely clear.)
As these difficult moral dilemmas present themselves to Kyle daily in his task of protecting other soldiers, he is also part of a team looking for a specific set of Al Qaeda higher-ups. And then there’s Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), the name the U.S. soldiers have given to an insurgent sniper who, according to legend, was once on the Syrian Olympics team for shooting. Both skilled snipers, Mustafa and Kyle begin to target each other personally as well as their opposing armies’ troops.
Meanwhile, back home, Taya, over the years, has the couple’s two children and finds herself raising them almost entirely alone as Kyle continues to sign up for tour after tour — he eventually serves four tours in Iraq. Each time he comes home, she complains that he is a different man, that even when he’s physically present he’s not emotionally present and a bunch of other things in this vein that you could probably guess at yourself based on general pop culture knowledge of military-related TV and movies of the last 10 years. 
So, while I don’t know what this movie is actually about I can definitely say that it is a biopic, hitting all the key moments in Kyle’s life. What the movie thinks about Kyle or his life or his service in the war or the war itself, I have no idea. I’ve seen this movie described as pro-war and I’d disagree — somehow, despite being about a sniper in Iraq, the movie doesn’t really have any point of view about the war. I’m not even sure it knows what it’s saying about what the war did to Kyle — we see him overreact to normal suburban neighborhood sounds or to a car driving too close to him on the highway. But, for a movie that spends so much time showing us the math of how Kyle becomes a SEAL, it plays the question of what Kyle is thinking and feeling very close to the vest.  
And when I say I’m not sure what American Sniper is about, I don’t mean it in a Boyhood “the moments that add up to a life” kind of way. American Sniper has a bunch of bare-bones “this is my book report about Chris Kyle” snippets of Kyle’s life, but they don’t coalesce in a way that creates either a sense of the man, really, or a sense of how the man fits in his time. I don’t need the movie to “solve” the war — to say “it was good, here’s why” or “it was bad” — but some amount of thought about the life of Kyle seems necessary. I come away with a hazy picture of a guy who felt very patriotic and frequently had a beard, and I feel like after more than two hours immersed in his life, I should know more than that. What’s it like to be a highly skilled sniper? What’s it like to serve four tours in that particular war zone? These questions — pretty basic for a movie about a guy who did those things — are never answered. Or maybe they’re answered around the periphery, with other people making observations about Kyle or the war leaving us to guess what he might be thinking or what the movie is thinking about him. 
Bradley Cooper’s performance reflects this. Perhaps “restrained” was where he was going, but he makes Kyle so restrained we never get close to the man.
Unbroken, another (to my mind) not so successful adaptation of a tale about one military man’s life, fell down by not getting out of its story’s way, by not just letting the fascinating elements of the tale move the narrative. American Sniper’s problem feels almost the opposite — as if too much was stripped away, and all that’s left is such a thin framework that the complexity of the man and his story is lost. C
Rated R for strong and disturbing war violence, and language throughout including some sexual references. Directed by Clint Eastwood and written by Jason Hall (from a book by Chris Kyle, Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice), American Sniper is two hours and 12 minutes long and distributed by Warner Bros. 
 
As seen in the January 22, 2015 issue of the Hippo.
 





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