Film Review: American Sniper

The trailer is simple. It doesn’t want to do more than evoke a morale question, to tease and query at the very essence of tension and anxiety. To grab you. It doesn’t want to sell you a film or to give you a summary, it wants to hint at the power American Sniper claims to have. It wants to demand your attention. To force you to ponder one thing – does he take the shot?

The problem for me though, was that no matter how much perceived force the trailer can muster, there are too many stereotypical cliches swirling around my head. After all, this is a modern war film, about Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history, directed by a U.S screen legend in Clint Eastwood. It just screamed patriotic flag waving. Of Men versus Boys. And when the Oscar nominations came out, and it was sitting, predictably, in the list marked “Best Film”, my unfounded belief seemed confirmed.

Bradley Cooper & Clint Eastwood - American Sniper

Having seen virtually everything else of interest at the cinema at the moment, I thought I’d give it a chance, especially as the reviews seemed to be against my idea of a story bloated by over Americanised inflation. But the film I found has left me somewhat vacant of thought or reprise. I’ve come away feeling very much like I did after seeing Kajaki. Technically it’s an accurate portrayal of war as far as I can tell, but it feels too specific, too far removed from my comfortable existence to connect with me. It felt like a visual handbook, a guide.

Also, I am fast developing an issue with modern warfare and Hollywood’s imagining of it. Everything is too digital, too futuristic, too computerised. There is a binary detachment to 21st century fighting that means there is no charm or organic flow to it. While you shouldn’t look for a depth or warmth in war, everything, including the soldiers, the boots on the ground, feel like a wired machine. No longer requiring or creating tension. Simply efficient. I’m never moved by modern combat because I never feel like I’m dealing with real people. And this just repeats that sensation because American Sniper never got inside me, never scared me, or made me feel like I knew what was going through the minds of those under fire, or even those left at home.

Clint Eastwood replaced Steven Spielberg in the directors seat, and also, changed the entire tone and narrative of the film. The finished product screams of Eastwood, this film has the exact withdrawn graze of his previous works like Gran Torino, Million Dollar Baby and Mystic River. All designed and executed with clinical precision but nothing to suck you in. You sit there and audit. It feels like a story of non-fiction, regimentally presented without love or emotion. The facts laid chronologically and unapologetically, because they are the facts, they are what happened and that is how it must be told.

Bradley Cooper is tasked with bringing Chris Kyle to life but Eastwood’s determination to stick to blindly and faithfully on one path straitjackets any real freedom and performance Cooper can bring to the role. He tries his best, and you do for a large part see beyond an actor playing a role, but he never falls convincingly into character. There is certainly no way I can see him winning an Oscar, in fact I’d say Miles Teller’s performance in Whiplash was more worthy of a nomination than Cooper’s, but that is down to the strictness of direction by Eastwood destroying the space to really look behind the eyes than anything you can fairly throw at Cooper.

Sienna Miller - American Sniper

I must, however, make mention of Sienna Miller, who for the second time in recent weeks manages to put in a performance of subtly and magic that is so engrossing that honestly, until the credit rolled at the end, I hadn’t even realised it was her. She’s blended a little bit too much into the background of Foxcatcher, but with a larger supporting role in this, she is the real shinning light. And like Miles Teller, her recent turns deserved an Oscar nomination in my view. Can you really claim Emma Stone or Kiera Knightley are better?

Sadly though, one understated yet exquisite supporting role does not salvage the film, and while it isn’t a patriotic recounting of greatness, or “Stars and Stripes” propaganda, offering an acceptable approach towards balance and “an eye for an eye”, it is certainly noticeable that it’s 500 eyes for an eye. The clichéd Hollywood kill-count is certainly in full-on effect.

My biggest complaint though comes from the fact that for a film that takes such a technically clinical and precise view of its subject matter, it doesn’t apply the same rules to its construction. Firstly, the film isn’t overly long (two hours twelve) and I wouldn’t argue it feels it’s length, it’s pacing forward constantly, there are a few moments where it seems to lose step, ideas and imagery being repeated when you’ve already understood and answered the question and would prefer it to just move on.

Secondly, there is a huge time jump in the story line that destroys all credibility and trust. It’s made worse by the fact that they ignore this sudden leap forward, but it’s such a monumental leap that you cannot forgive the lack of explanation. You almost feel like you’ve been cheated, that they’ve hidden something from you and it never recovers. It never wins you back. But ultimately, there is just something unsettling about the aspect ratio of the film. Bradley Cooper seems to change dimension within the frame. It was like when an old fashioned 4:3 “square” image was stretched into 16:9 “widescreen” without care by a post-processing television. Cooper’s face seemed to horizontally fatten and shrink without warning or reason. It’s noticeable and off putting and distracting. The cinematic flaws are all fleeting minor errors, but they litter the film and that’s unforgivable.

Chris Kyle - American Sniper

I really don’t see what there is to like in American Sniper, what a lot of other people seem to see and why it’s got such lofty Oscar nominations is beyond me. Thankfully, although it takes an overview of acceptable one sidedness the story still remains buoyant in truth but it just has too many problems to do it justice. Chris Kyle, the American Sniper, appears to be an interesting man, it’s just a shame his story has been told in an uninteresting way.

6 out of 10 stars (6 / 10)

Posted on by 5WC in Film First Edition

Comments are closed.