American Sniper review

Clint Eastwood's new film, American Sniper, may have smashed box office records. Yet it's riddled with problems...

American Sniper doesn’t need defending. The film racked up six Academy Award nominations, and Thursday’s announcement spurred on the wide release of the film in the United States this weekend to a record-breaking $90m opening. Unfortunately, it may also be the worst film that director Clint Eastwood has ever made.

That’s not to say that we place the blame at Eastwood’s feet, although his no-frills approach to directing is one of the many things that works against the film. The memoir American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History has been kicking around for a long time at Bradley Cooper’s production company. At various times in its development, it’s been intended for Chris Pratt to star as Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, with David O. Russell or Steven Spielberg tapped to direct the film.

Finally arriving with Eastwood at the helm and Cooper in the lead role, the film tells the story of Kyle, who amassed 160 confirmed kills during four tours of duty in the Iraq War. The film covers his entire military record, travelling between his exploits as leader of a direct squad on the ground in Iraq, to his fraught home life with concerned wife Taya (Sienna Miller) and young kids.

But the film fails early and fails often. The scene depicted in the propulsive trailer, in which Kyle looks through his scope at a nine-year-old boy and his mother about to lob a grenade at American forces, is the first scene of the film, establishing what a sniper’s line of work may entail. That trailer built huge tension at the impossibility of Kyle’s dilemma, a tension that is seldom felt in any other part of the film.

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In fact, many of the adversaries that Kyle and his comrades face are nameless and faceless ‘savages’, (the film’s word, not mine) to be picked off one at a time. The closest we get to a fleshed-out enemy is Mustafa, (Sammy Sheik) a rival marksman who plagues Kyle’s squad, but the film is no more interested in his motivation than anybody else’s.

As a result, the insurgents come howling incoherently in the general direction of our heroes until they are picked off from afar. From that distance, Kyle, who adorns all of his gear and vehicles with the Punisher’s skull emblem, is a real Frederick Zoller. Quentin Tarantino fans will remember Zoller as the star of Inglourious Basterds‘ film-within-a-film Nation’s Pride.

You can never lightly compare a Clint Eastwood film to Nazi propaganda, but that is the soul-crushing depth of American Sniper‘s cheerless jingoism. On top of that, it’s quite an inert film. Eastwood has never been the most dynamic of directors, but there’s some staggering slap-dashery going on here.

For instance, there’s really nowhere that’s more apparent than in a scene in which Cooper is lowered to cradling an obvious rubber baby prop that’s playing his daughter. The scene has rightly caused bafflement since Oscar screeners for the film were sent out, but the screen-grabs don’t do justice to how audaciously half-arsed it looks in action.

Cooper deserves the Best Actor nomination (his third consecutive nod) for that scene alone, but to give credit where it’s due, he really ups his game to play Kyle. Quite aside from putting on 40 pounds of muscle, he really underplays it for once. Cooper often overplays his roles, whether he’s playing a bipolar man or a gun-toting raccoon, but he quietly broods here in a way that would come off quite well if there were any more substance to his character.

Even after a lengthy development process, this is a relatively quick turnaround for a biopic- most of the events depicted took place in the last 15 years. But the reason why the film needs no defending is because the film is emphatically not Chris Kyle. Whatever you think of Kyle’s military record or the war on terror in general, it would be hard to dislike him on the basis of this, and even harder to love him – the film is so slack and unfocused, we hardly know him at all.

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Writer Jason Hall (who you might remember as the frontman of Oz’s band in Buffy The Vampire Slayer) bounces between Kyle’s numerous tours of duty and the Stateside leave he enjoys in between. When filmed, this amounts to alternating periods of meaningless violence and carnage, and utterly disinterested domestic grumbling from an underused Sienna Miller.

American Sniper takes a one-sided approach to its subject, feigning a conscientious interest in the effects that Kyle’s reputation had on his mind-set, but constantly zeroing in on the more gratuitously violent episodes. The more interesting latter part of his life is glossed over in a painfully rushed epilogue and one of the most trite closing captions of any biopic.

A director like Spielberg or Russell might have impressed their own personality upon this, but Eastwood has gotten every scene of the film done in a couple of takes each, even if that means casting a rubber baby. Cooper and Miller give it their all, but they’re not enough to elevate a biopic that has no real point to make, and settles for being a joyless commemoration of violence.

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2 out of 5