The Watchers

The Watchers

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Review: American Sniper (UK Cert 15)

SPOILER WARNING! This review discusses and/or mentions a few important plot points. If you would prefer not to have these spoiled, please stop reading now and come back once you've seen the film.  

American Sniper is a difficult film to talk about, mostly because it deals with an emotive subject (the war in Iraq and America's part in it) and also because it is based on a true story. Any criticism of the film feels like a criticism of the person and that isn't exactly fair on those left behind. 

As much as it is possible, I am going to limit myself to talking about the film as a film- as a fictionalised account of Chris Kyle's life and work- and try and stay out of the bigger picture or wider context of the war, the military and even what Kyle was like as a real person (or what the book he wrote, which the screenplay is based on, says). This might be a bit of a cop-out but it's probably safer. For an interesting look on the historical accuracy (or otherwise) of the film, this is a good article to start with.

Kyle (Bradley Cooper) was raised by a devoutly religious family, initially becoming a cowboy and then signed up to the US Navy SEALS and acted as a sniper in Iraq, completing four tours of duty. He is credited with over 160 confirmed kills although the figure may be much higher. He married and had children and, once he left the Army, he helped injured soldiers in rehabilitation. He was shot and killed in 2013 at a shooting range in Texas by a young army veteran he was trying to help, who was suffering from PTSD.

First things first: there is a lot I didn't like about American Sniper.

Mostly, the bellicose, jingoistic, America-f*ck-yeah, hoo-rah attitude espoused by Kyle. Things were black and white: America is the greatest country in the world and anyone threatening it needs to be put down with extreme prejudice. The world operates in shades of grey, sadly, so this tunnel-visioned narrowmindedness is utterly alienating- not to mention wearying in the extreme. There's no discussion, nothing wavering from that message. They're evil, they're savages, they deserve to die. That's that. Done. I understand that some people see the world thus and that's how they operate- and no doubt for soldiers, they have to see the world in such terms in order to do the things they sometimes have to do- but, as a narrative, it's not something I can get behind.

A secondary issue is the (over)use of war movie cliches that infect the plot. A colleague talking about marriage once he gets home? Dead or injured at least. A shadowy doppelganger of the lead character, doing the same thing but on the other side? Present. That said, Eastwood has an eye for detail and does create some tense moments (such as the section of the film shown in the trailer where Kyle must decide on taking down a child armed with a missile). But after that, it does go down hill and occasionally felt like watching someone play a first-person-shooter.  

Cooper's performance is decent. Kyle is a man of few words, a lot goes on behind his eyes and the subtle hints (underplayed) that he may be suffering from PTSD work well without any histrionics. Kyle appeared to be a man unrepentant about his work- claiming that he would meet his Maker with a clean conscience- and that's a difficult sell without coming across as a psychopath, but the film just about does it. The rest of Kyle's platoon are sadly unremarkable cannon-fodder and those characters are not fleshed out at all. 

The best performance of the film comes from Sienna Miller who plays Kyle's wife, Taya. Her uncertainty at getting into a relationship with a SEAL is played well and she and Cooper have a real potent chemistry together. She is the emotional anchor of the film and absolutely sells it without going over the top. At times you feel like screaming at her 'why don't you just leave him?' but Miller's performance brings across the deep love that Taya has for her husband, which makes the end of the story even more devastating.

Kyle's time away from the forces and his work with rehabilitation is perhaps more interesting than a lot of the previous stuff, but it gets glossed over with a shortish 20-minute coda, with a presentation of the fateful day that Kyle was killed. The action takes place off-screen, with a succinct one-line text to sum it up. The mid-credits then show real-life footage from Kyle's memorial service and the end credits then roll in total silence to let you absorb the tragedy. It's undeniably powerful but utterly manipulative at the same time.

As a film, American Sniper is not without its issues. You either have to get behind the black-and-white view of the world its main character has, or be able to see past it, to engage. It's probably one of the stronger films that has been made about the war in Iraq but it's still not the Iraq war equivalent to, say, Platoon or Saving Private Ryan.

Rating: 3 out of 5


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