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Overall Rating
2.56

Awesome: 22.22%
Worth A Look: 7.41%
Average: 7.41%
Pretty Bad: 29.63%
Total Crap33.33%

2 reviews, 15 user ratings


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American Sniper
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by Brett Gallman

"Blood work."
2 stars

As as the most lethal sniper in United States history, Chris Kyle was no doubt a complicated man. Taking up such a mantle and bragging about it to the point of unrepentance requires a fascinating psyche—or a psyche ravaged by the horrors of war, at least. Perhaps Kyle’s memoir paints a richer portrait than the film it inspired, but, under the auspices of Clint Eastwood, “American Sniper” doesn’t bother to consider him as anything more than an avatar for whatever you’re inclined to project onto him. You never gain a sense of who this man really was—only what he can represent.

Maybe that’s the point, or maybe it’s just sloppy, tone-deaf filmmaking, but Eastwood has nonetheless crafted a film that’s sometimes tough to decode. While that doesn’t necessarily make it a tough film (even if it does deal with the impossible choices a sniper must make at times), it makes it an intriguing one because it unwittingly critiques conservative values and the American war machine yet lionizes one of its shining stars. Lost in it all is Chris Kyle himself (brought to life by a bulked-up Bradley Cooper), which ultimately speaks to what the film is really up to.

Eastwood skims through the highlights of his life in a cradle-to-the-grave narrative that traces Kyle’s ultra-conservative upbringing (in which his father’s deer-hunting lessons feel like an origin story for his superhuman sniping precision) to his decision to enlist in the army after witnessing terrorist attacks on television. Rarely does Kyle ever come across as an actual person, but he comes closest during this mid-20s malaise that finds him drifting from one rodeo to another. An intense encounter with a cheating lover hints that this man is perhaps hardwired for violence (it turns out he handles the man he finds in his home the same way he treated bullies on the schoolyard a decade earlier) and some level of destructiveness.

That this scene is actually played for laughs provides the first clue that the film won’t be a reflective account of the man’s life, though. Instead, “American Sniper” charges with as little self-awareness as Kyle himself and locks itself into a listless cycle that has him alternating between the battlefield and domestic life over the course of four tours of duty. Each step traces readymade clichés: the hellacious basic training, the meet-cute with his future wife (Sienna Miller) in a bar, their wedding on the eve of his first deployment, his growing legend on the battlefield, his difficulty in readjusting to civilian life. It’s the latter two that are highlighted most often during the film’s tedious middle act—if you can call it that.

As is the case with so many unruly biopics, “American Sniper” is rather formless in its recitation of events: one scene features Kyle blowing holes in enemy soldiers, while the next has him cradling his newborn child (which is just a barely concealed rubber baby). Miller is saddled with the thankless task of pointing out that when Kyle is home, he’s not “really there,” and the film occasionally flirts with exploring his PTSD before ultimately dancing right around it. A disturbing scene during a birthday party threatens to reveal the ugly realities of war, but Eastwood seems just as eager to return to the battlefield as Kyle himself once was.

You sometimes wonder what the rush is, though. Eastwood doesn’t seem to be too keen on carving a narrative out of Kyle’s time in Iraq. Rather, he’s sweeping together fragments and shards of certain missions in an effort to replicate a soldier’s experience, perhaps. His style is classically restrained, and it’s tempting to consider it flat or disinterested in lieu of simply considering it for its rawness. It’s a rightfully joyless trudge through one of the most outrageous atrocities of our time, and the film often avoids jingoistic overtures. With the exception of a couple of scenes (we’ll get to one of them in a bit), “American Sniper” doesn’t misrepresent just how fucking horrible war must be, even when it’s depicted as something many are inexplicably drawn to.

That said, it’s not exactly a scathing critique of the Iraq War, nor does it condemn its point-of-view. When Kyle constantly refers to the enemies as “savages,” the film does little to dissuade you of the notion. I don’t think there’s an Arab person in this movie that doesn’t come off as dishonest at best and completely bloodthirsty at worst. Insurgent soldiers are one-dimensional goons who think nothing of drilling a hole during a child’s head, while the script at least affords Kyle a moment where he implores a small child to relinquish an anti-tank gun, a cursory scene meant to absolve his own bloodlust.

Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall almost stumble onto something interesting with the introduction of Kyle’s Syrian counterpart, an Olympic-level range shooter who becomes something of a white whale—and not much else. Maybe the director who strove to consider the Other side with a film like “Letters from Iwo Jima” would have taken the time to highlight the obvious parallels between this man and Kyle. Both are obviously driven by a compulsive sense of duty (or pleasure) and forsake their families to carry it out, and this is the closest the film comes to suggesting that war attracts a certain type of broken, wounded soul that transcends borders, color, and religions.

Only one of the two is empathized with, of course, and you can be damn sure it isn’t Kyle’s skull on the receiving end of the bullet Eastwood’s camera fondly traces over the course of its mile-long trip across Iraqi rooftops. This is Kyle’s most legendary—and perhaps preposterous—moment, and it’s one of the few times Eastwood delights in the violence. Taking a life in this context should feel more sobering. You want the horrified thoughtfulness of Will Munny; instead, you get the unapologetic brutality of Dirty Harry. Kyle eventually admits that he only wishes he had committed more acts in the name of saving American lives.

Now’s as good a time as any to discuss the fate of Chris Kyle. Certainly, the film itself finds very little time to do so. His eventual death at the hands of a fellow veteran on a gun range should shadow every frame of “American Sniper.” For whatever reason, it’s the buried lede here; for all the horrors it reveals on the battlefield, the film is reluctant to truly acknowledge that the war never truly ends for many veterans.

Kyle is apparently miraculously healed of his PTSD, and his death is consigned to a closing text--Chris Kyle somehow becoming an afterthought in his own story is the real horror of “American Sniper.” Eastwood seems less interested in the man and more enthralled by the legend—he’s into mythmaking, not psychoanalysis.

And yet, the film nearly functions as some kind of inkblot test all the same. The more Chris Kyle the man recedes into the background, the more pronounced Chris Kyle the cipher becomes. Is he an indictment of the roughneck cultural values that compelled him to a life of violence (a memorable transition from an Iraqi child caught in Kyle’s crosshairs to a deer caught in the same predicament suggests something chilling about his mindset)? A victim of an unjust war? A hero of born out of a complicated situation? A symbol of how we refuse to confront the trauma these men endure? A psychopath who willingly abandoned his family to find an outlet for his violent tendencies?

Eastwood and company nudge you away from the latter, particularly in their deletion of the more specious aspects of the Kyle legend: the stories about picking off looters from the roof of the Superdome during Katrina, the claims about shooting two in self-defense, his now infamous (non?) confrontation with Jesse Ventura. Other sources paint a notably more complicated portrait than the one Eastwood eventually settles on. No one could reasonably expect “American Sniper” to outright condemn its subject, but it leans towards idolizing a man and a story bordering on reprehensible.

Between the film’s careful omissions and Cooper’s folk hero performance, Kyle comes across as an uncomplicated hero destined to shoot brown people. The actual man—who we catch glimpses of only when Cooper is allowed a few, small, expressive moments—seems like a much more complex, fascinating individual. At the very least, his struggle to overcome his trauma and help out other wounded warriors is a story worth telling; eliding over it is a disservice to his true heroism. Whatever one might think of his somewhat twisted worldview, his decision to help heal rather than destroy is compelling evidence that he may have had some moments of self-reflection.

Then again, maybe what we see here is what most truly got from him. By many accounts, Kyle was as myopic as the film that’s memorialized him. Had Eastwood opted to pull back and remain more ambivalent (something he threatens to do by revealing the savagery of a war that Kyle consumes like a junkie, thus nearly undercutting the hero of the tale), “American Sniper” might have been a daring exercise in staring into an abyss and allowing viewers to take from it what they will.

What we have, though, is a film that eventually seeks to hold your hand through that abyss and blindfold you from its more disturbing corners. After emerging from the other side, you’re greeted with actual footage of Kyle’s funeral procession, a state-wide event attended by thousands of people affected by Kyle’s story. Clearly, this man’s life resonated with many people, and this feels like a film meant to comfort them: everything about Kyle’s life—from his father’s coarse lessons in self-preservation to his firm belief that a fellow soldier’s doubts about the Iraq War amounted to weakness—was in the service of God and country.

The rest of the credits play to a respectful silence, though some might find it an awkward hush considering it’s the film’s only truly ruminative moment (Cooper even plays a scene with a psychiatrist with a macho bravado to either conceal or ignore whatever turmoil may have felt). It would rather you ponder The Legend; what goes unsaid about Chris Kyle weighs more heavily, however.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=27789&reviewer=429
originally posted: 01/23/15 12:07:41
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 AFI Fest For more in the 2014 AFI Fest series, click here.

User Comments

2/13/17 morris campbell right wing 4 sure but still powerful chris kyle was unhinged 4 sure like all war veterans 5 stars
2/25/15 stanley welles flat, superficial war film aimed at an audience that prizes patriotism over drama 2 stars
2/15/15 Taylor Terrible propaganda shit from Clint eastwood 1 stars
2/11/15 josh messier So bloody what if he movie does not follow the real life story of the guy! 5 stars
2/03/15 Dillon Gonzales Great acting and nice plotting, but slightly overrated 4 stars
1/26/15 kris Well made but dishonest about the Iraq war and very "right-wing". 3 stars
1/25/15 Joe Smaltz Eastwood makes movies for customers, not critics. Third week, still filling theaters. 5 stars
1/21/15 Loner Utter garbage . Right wing propaganda at its worst. 1 stars
1/20/15 mr.mike Outstanding film 5 stars
1/19/15 Bob Dog No shaky cam war action! Truth free! 2 stars
1/19/15 The Big D Well deserved tribute to Chris Kyle, his family, the SEALS, and the United States military! 5 stars
1/19/15 AussieDog Outstanding film - taught, thoughtful, and powerful. Clint has done it again. 5 stars
1/19/15 Terror American propaganda bullshit. This guy was a psycho. 1 stars
1/15/15 gringo characters were a bit cardboard. Decent action sequencies 3 stars
1/01/15 PAUL SHORTT TENSE, ENGROSSING, WELL MADE WARTIME DRAMA WITH A GREAT STAR PERFORMANCE 4 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  25-Dec-2014 (R)
  DVD: 19-May-2015

UK
  16-Jan-2015 (15)

Australia
  22-Jan-2015 (MA)
  DVD: 19-May-2015




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