Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Clint Eastwood. Screenplay by Jason Hall, based on the book by Chris Kyle, Scott McEwen, Jim DeFelice. Produced by Clint Eastwood, Robert Lorenz, Andrew Lazar, Bradley Cooper, Peter Morgan. Photographed by Tom Stern. Edited by Joel Cox, Gary D. Roach. Production designed by Charisse Cardenas, James G. Murakami. Starring Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller.
American Sniper comes billed as the story of “the most lethal sniper in U.S. history.” That’s the claim that Chris Kyle, a former Navy SEAL who served multiple tours in Iraq, made when he wrote his memoir in 2012, shortly before his murder the following year. The veracity of the book’s more outrageous claims has been hotly debated since it was published (and some probably will never be confirmed, given that the military rightly has no interest to do so). If he did embellish, then Clint Eastwood’s film embellishes more, roughly adapting and stretching the book and paying attention to Chris Kyle, the legend. Unfortunately, American Sniper short-changes Chris Kyle, the man.
The fault is not Bradley Cooper’s. He uses extra weight and an impressive physicality to convey the intimidation and toughness of a Navy SEAL. His Texas accent walks the right line between charming and weary. He successfully shows the way a solider has to build walls around himself, and those walls don’t easily come down at home. Most cannily, he finds the right way to subvert his own natural likability as an actor: when his features become unrelentingly grim, we feel it so acutely because Cooper is an actor who we like to see smile.
Deployed in Iraq, Chris’ life becomes an unrelenting series of grisly episodes. Upon arrival, Chris and his fellow SEALs are instructed that anyone remaining in the evacuated rubble of Baghdad must be automatically considered an enemy combatant. Perched in his sniper’s nest, Chris must indiscriminately target men, women, children. He grows (and starts maintaining) a mythic reputation with his skills, so much so that an Iraqi sniper, Mustafa (Sammy Shiek) emerges, and a sort of duel develops between the two men. The combat sequences are well-staged and effective throughout (especially a brutal escape that occurs mid-sandstorm), even if we question the number of crucial decisions that the story gives to Chris, because as a story, giving them to someone else probably would not do. Print the legend, after all.
The real issue with American Sniper is that it fails to truly dig into Chris Kyle as a person. Despite Cooper’s best efforts, Chris spends a lot of the movie’s time as a cypher, and every emotional beat that is there is underlined with on-the-nose, trite dialogue. It’s the kind of movie that spends half its time recapping things verbally that Cooper has already told us through his acting. This is never better illustrated than with Chris’ wife, Tay (a misused Sienna Miller), who has no function in the movie’s second half except to tell Chris how much he has changed and how much she is worried. The film is structured like a character study, but it’s a thin one because it explains everything through huge bullet points. There’s not much nuance or any sense of discovery. The movie feels much more at home putting Chris in action than it does showing him battling PTSD.
Clint Eastwood remains as revered as any working Hollywood director, and his speed of output is impressive as ever (he has made nine films in the past ten years). But he also has a nasty habit of producing work that feels frustratingly unfinished, and American Sniper continues that tradition. The screenplay briefly sketches ideas that it never fleshes out later (such as when it draws a parallel between the two snipers as family men protecting their homes, a comparison that the movie quickly forgets). It also doesn’t dramatize the procedural element of becoming a great sniper (the movie just jumps ahead to him being one), so the sequences where Chris has his rifle feel a little empty because we never get a chance to fully understand the process. Even when he returns home, the movie glosses over things it could make a meal of, especially since his ultimate fate is cruelly ironic given his own post-tour troubles. Eastwood’s reputation as a restrained filmmaker sometimes gets in the way, because it means he neglects to pounce on things that he should.
As it stands, American Sniper is a disappointment, although it is worth seeing for its central performance. But it lacks the most crucial thing in a sniper’s toolkit: precision.