Sunday, 25 January 2015

Film Review: American Sniper

American Sniper is a biopic about the deadliest sniper in US military history, Chris Kyle. Across four tours in Iraq, Kyle (who is played by Bradley Cooper) racked up over 160 confirmed kills and saved the lives of countless American soldiers.

Directed by Clint Eastwood and nominated for six Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Actor for Cooper), American Sniper is a slick but simplistic look into the psyche of Kyle, one that feels a little too skin-deep to really hit home.

American Sniper opens with the scene glimpsed at so often in the trailers. You know the one - Kyle (Cooper) is stationed on a rooftop overlooking a US convoy when two Iraqis, a woman and her son, step into the street with what looks like a grenade. After being handed the explosive, the small boy begins to approach the Americans and only Kyle has a clear shot. If he misses, he'll be responsible for the deaths of dozens of soldiers. If he's mistaken and the boy isn't carrying an explosive, he'll have killed an innocent child.

What happens next? Does he shoot him? If so, how can he come back from that? If not, could he live with himself?

It's this sense of 'will he, won't he' that runs throughout American Sniper. It's used to great effect too - this film is edge of your seat stuff, and scenes like the one I described above are some of the best from any Iraq war film to date, including 2009's Best Picture Winner, The Hurt Locker. Director Clint Eastwood effectively captures the tense stillness of Kyle's job - every breath and every word is hushed leaving the audience glued to the screen.

That being said, my biggest issue with American Sniper is that it's very black/white in how it portrays Kyle and the Iraqis. Now, I'm not an expert on the guy - in fact, I hadn't heard of Chris Kyle before I saw the trailer for this movie. But, based on just the film, I can tell you that Kyle was a very boring, thick-skulled and unwaveringly patriotic guy. As a character, he's just not all that interesting - he's driven by serving his country, he cares very little of the people he kills and shows very little remorse once he's returned home. Sure, there are moments where Kyle is torn up at the beginning, but come the end of the film he's a stoic, methodical robot who is hard to sympathise with.

This isn't down to Cooper's acting ability - on the contrary, Cooper's performance is one of the films strongest suits. All I'm saying is, I don't think the film did a good enough job of showing this notion of moral ambiguity in Kyle's character and his arc flatlines very early on. I was hoping there would be more to the character than Eastwood showed us, but unfortunately the film was set on painting Kyle as a pure of heart American hero akin to Steve Rogers.

On top of that, American Sniper's depiction of the Iraqi population is really disappointing. Again, there is very little room for shades of grey - the film tells us that Americans are good and Iraqis are bad, end of story. There's very little subtlety or nuance to how the film depicts the Iraqi conflict, and this is compounded by the simplistic Stars and Stripes depiction of Kyle.

If you compare it with another recent war movie like Fury, a film that strived to portray the German public as humans, these weaknesses come to light even further.

That being said, American Sniper is still a good film. If you can set aside these complaints and focus on the film-making techniques, it's still a pretty decent war film. Like I said, the way Eastwood frames to conflict to create tension is amazing and these parts really sucked me in. The way in which Eastwood shoots action is immersive and frightening, putting the audience in moment alongside Kyle and the American Marines as they go door to door through war-torn Iraq.

That being said, this does slip during the final set-piece of the film. Eastwood makes the decision to unleash a sandstorm on proceedings for the big crescendo, rendering everything murky and incomprehensible. What could've been exciting was instead confusing and plain dumb.

Another plus is Sienna Miller as Kyle's Stateside wife, Taya. I found that the scenes she shared with Cooper whilst Kyle was between tours were some of the most interesting and well-acted in the entire film. Although, whilst I hate to be the bearer of bad news, the two have clearly given birth to a baby made of plastic. Awkward...

The Verdict: 7/10

The action and dramatic tension are great, but the story is too one-sided to invest fully in Kyle's heroic persona. Eastwood's camerawork is effective and Cooper wrings the material for all its worth, but in the end American Sniper isn't as complex or essential as you'd hope.

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