Big Screen Streaming: American Sniper

Big Screen Streaming: American Sniper

-Film Review by Roger Market

Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper has been the number one movie in America for a couple of weeks now. The film is also one of the most controversial features in recent memory. Based on the memoir of the same name, American Sniper tells the story of Chris Kyle’s Navy SEAL training and his four tours of duty in Iraq. During his service, Chris “The Legend” Kyle was credited with 160 kills, making him the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history. Aside from the obvious controversy (that he killed people), negative criticism of the book and movie tend to center on the accusation that the U.S. military fabricates and/or exaggerates war heroes as a form of propaganda. Secondly, Kyle’s alleged penchant for lying and bragging is of public concern. Although the latter controversy goes largely unaddressed in the film, the former provides a focal point, raising the question: Does Hollywood create propaganda? This is a film that will prompt important discussions.

In the opening scene, Chris spots a suspicious Iraqi man on a rooftop. He trains his gun on him but ultimately decides the man is not dangerous. Next, he shifts his suspicions to a woman and her little boy as they exit the building. They seem to be hiding something under their clothes. The tension is palpable, as the viewer realizes that evil can come in the form of the person or people we least expect. Finally, we flash back to Chris’s pre-war days, and the nail-biting opening sequence doesn’t conclude until the beginning of the second act.

Critics may suggest that this mother-child sequence is Hollywood at its most sensational. At the end of the day, however, the sequence is effective and emotional, and that’s exactly why we watch movies. “Entertainment” doesn’t always mean laughs, after all. Which is good, because, after the first act, there are few laughs to be had in American Sniper.

The movie’s early flashbacks show Chris learning to hunt with his father, Wayne Kyle. As the viewer might expect, young Chris easily takes down a deer on his own, establishing him as a crack shot from the beginning. In the scenes that follow, Chris’s father instills values like “we protect our own,” which serves as a major theme throughout the movie. Wayne also believes that one shouldn’t fight unless violence is unavoidable. When Chris helps his little brother in a schoolyard fight, therefore, both boys are punished, even though their father is proud that Chris stepped in to help his weaker sibling. “Did you finish it?” Wayne asks, revealing what he thinks is most important when it comes to navigating life’s meanest confrontations.

This question drives the film thematically. Early in his military career, Chris becomes obsessed with catching an enemy sniper known as “The Butcher” and, thus, turns the war into a personal dilemma. Only he can “finish it.” Across his four tours, Chris makes and loses friends. He becomes distant from everyone, including his family. Ultimately, he loses touch with his pre-war self.

Despite the controversy surrounding the movie, one fact that’s gone largely unchallenged is that Bradley Cooper is phenomenal in the role of the broken and tortured Chris Kyle. A particularly poignant scene takes place during one of his trips home. Upon his arrival in the United States, Chris stops at a bar and soon receives a phone call from his wife Taya (played by Sienna Miller). She’s surprised to learn that her husband is already stateside.

“I guess I just needed a minute,” Chris says, fighting back tears. Cooper’s performance here is astonishing. Sometimes it’s more impressive to see an actor withhold tears than to see him/her break down, and this is one of those moments. Sienna Miller turns in a wonderful performance as Taya, and in this particular scene, she conveys the appropriate amount of confusion and concern. Troubles aside, it’s clear that she loves and is committed to her husband.

Despite the movie’s acting triumphs and powerful story, American Sniper does present some noticeable pacing issues due to the book-to-screen nature of the story. Simply put, there’s so much story to cover in an adaptation that the screenwriter has to make some tough and often unpopular decisions. In the American Sniper film, Chris’s first tour of duty doesn’t end until almost the midpoint of the movie. That means the second half has to breeze through the remaining three tours, and some viewers may feel cheated out of details. Elements that seem important early in the movie (e.g., Chris’s brother) seem to evaporate later without a satisfactory resolution. Most importantly, because of the disproportionate amount of time spent setting up Chris’s family life and his first tour of duty in act one, Chris’s pursuit and eventual defeat of The Butcher feels almost like an afterthought. The effect is a stunning movie that fails to reach its full potential, although the reasons are understandable considering the current film market’s thirst for adaptations.

Finally, viewers should be aware that it’s a strange experience to watch this movie in theaters. This reviewer saw American Sniper on a Sunday at 12:45 p.m. Even at that time of day, the theater was packed, something I’ve never seen happen. Throughout the movie, I could hear the man next to me (there was no room to spread out) gasping and talking quietly to himself—about what, I’ll never know. In the end, the credits rolled, and it was then that I realized I had never seen a credit sequence without music. Yes, the closing credits of American Sniper are silent. Equally powerful, the audience had been so engrossed in the film that for at least 30 seconds after the silent credits began to roll, not a single person said anything. I slipped out quietly and let the chatter rise around me as people slowly found their voices again.

By its very nature, American Sniper is bound to make viewers think, despite and perhaps because of its imperfections. The film provokes mixed feelings about the Iraq war and walks a thin line between being an honest drama and military propaganda. That said, Clint Eastwood deserves credit for directing a picture that demands the viewer’s respect for its characters and the true events they represent. American Sniper is well worth the matinee price. The screen is a target, and your eyes won’t blink until you’ve “finished it.”


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