There is a third act climax in the six-time Oscar nominated American Sniper where an explosive firefight takes place in the midst of a raging sandstorm. The buffeting winds and blanketing sand obscure nearly all vision like a very literal fog of war until it’s almost impossible to tell friend from foe, hero from villain, as they noisily and messily inflict death upon each other. This knife-edge tense scene is not only the culmination of veteran filmmaker Clint Eastwood’s skill as an action director, but also a perfect metaphor for the rest of this movie as it examines the life of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper).
A Navy SEAL sniper who earned the nickname “Legend” as he racked up a confirmed 160 out of 255 probable kills, the most in US military history, Kyle was a self-proclaimed cowboy, motivated into military service by the tragedies of the 1998 US Embassy bombings. Acting as “overwatch”, stationed high in the bombed out rooftops of Fallujah and other dust- and death-covered cities, it was Kyle’s job to safeguard the troops on the ground. His accuracy with a rifle – as unerring as his conviction that he is doing good, despite the many lives he takes – earns him the respect and adoration of his troops, but also the enmity of the Iraqi insurgents, personified by an equally deadly sniper – believed to be an ex-Syrian Olympic sharpshooter named Mustafa – who is sent to eliminate the “Legend”.
Whatever your politics, whether you consider Kyle’s actions to be that of an unflinching patriot or a mass-murdering zealot, the emotional toll that his actions took on his life as well as his family’s lives is undeniable. This makes for riveting viewing as Eastwood fills the movie with gut-wrenching vignettes around these repercussions. Sort of (more on that later). With Kyle’s macho man persona forcing him to internalize these harrowing effects, much of the overtly emotional lot falls on the shoulders of his wife Taya (Sienna Miller), who sees their matrimonial commitments marred from the get-go as Kyle receives his orders to ship out for his first of four tours of Iraq at their wedding ceremony.
Miller puts in an impressively torturous performance as her character’s life devolves into a series of ever more crippling bouts of anxiety over the safety of her husband every day – brilliantly played out when a satellite-phone conversation between the pair is interrupted by a violent shootout, allowing a very pregnant Taya to hear all the cacophonous carnage surrounding her beau on the other side of the world – and dealing with an emotionally distant partner who refuses to acknowledge his own obsessions and spends more time on “shore leave” thinking about his fellow soldiers than his ever more alienated family.
Eastwood, no stranger to exploring the human price of stoic heroism and blinkered war with previous projects like Flags of Our Fathers, Letters From Iwo Jima and Unforgiven, frequently brings up the fact that all the death Kyle witnesses through his crosshairs every day has left him a broken man, even if he won’t admit it. Cooper sells this with a powerfully restrained performance – verbally, his southern drawl may be mute on the subject, but there is a clear maelstrom of emotions always just bubbling underneath the surface of his apish physique.
The problem is that much like Kyle, Eastwood is never quite sure what he wants to say about this, and as soon as these moments rear their heads, they’re quickly brushed off again. On to the next scene. There’s some serious discourse to be had here about how PTSD is crippling “heroes”, and Eastwood – a man who in his personal political capacity was willing to engage in “serious discourse” with an empty chair, need I remind you – just refuses to commit to the debate. It’s not so much that Eastwood and co are leaving the audience to draw their own conclusions, but rather that they are intentionally shying away from the evidence that would allow a conclusion to be drawn.
Other than intentional oversights, the film’s script – adapted by Jason Hall by Kyle’s same-titled biography – is also quite prone to the Hollywood-ization of events. Kyle’s real life foibles – such as making several controversial, factually untrue statements in public – are never mentioned, while the roles of Mustafa and other Iraqi enemies are heightened so as to truly vilify them. This kind of thing is of course par for the course with these biopics, but still rankle on occasion.
None more so than the film’s horrifically botched, grievously anti-climactic ending. [SPOILER ALERT FOR THOSE WHO DON’T FOLLOW NEWS FROM 3 YEARS AGO] Kyle was shot and killed by a fellow veteran whom he was trying to assist with his own anxieties while the film was still in development in 2013. The film was supposed to end with this scene, driving home the message of these men being both heroes and villains. But Kyle’s widow requested it be cut from the film out of respect for her husband, leaving Eastwood to come up with a different ending. Unfortunately, the end result doesn’t only result in a damp squib of a finale, but also unnecessarily skews events to melodramatic low-budget Made-For-TV levels, simply to try to create its now missing end-cap [END SPOILER].
And then there’s the baby. I’ll rather leave you to discover this bit of unintentional cringe-worthy comedy for yourself, as it is very hard to miss this creepy creation of plastic un-life.
These last two points are especially frustrating for their slapdash-ness as there’s some serious awards-worthy craftmanship happening in the rest of the production. Eastwood directs both the hard-hitting home-drama and frenetic battle sequences with an assured hand, never flinching away from the grisly horrors of either scenario. He imbues every frame with emotion, whether it be dramatic or suspenseful, and coaxes performances out of his cast that certainly rise to the challenge. But unfortunately, Eastwood’s aim is just not as consistently steady as Kyle’s, resulting in a movie that may hit its mark with the vastly impressive accuracy and devastating after-effects of its chief subject more often than not, but which occasionally just misses the mark.
Last Updated: February 19, 2015