Clint Eastwood is something of a conundrum when it comes to directing movies. On form, he delivers some of the most intelligent and honest movies in America. On a bad day though, he is overly reliant on flag waving sentiment, cliche and ends up giving us badly realised caricatures of real life people. American Sniper, the biopic of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL who is credited with saving as many lives as he knowingly ended, falls somewhere in between.
The movie charts the story of Chris Kyle, from humble beginnings and an overbearing sense of patriotism, through to enlisting in the military and four tours in Iraq, and the fallout his lifestyle generates with his family back home. While his heroics on the battlefield are well documented, his personal life and the demons he brings home with him from active duty are something that was previously not explored, but Eastwood does his memory little justice in that regard. A deeply flawed man, the Chris Kyle we’re allowed to see is more at home behind the trigger, thousands of miles from his family, than when he’s between deployments and spending time with his wife and kids.
The real shame is that this side of his life could and should have been every bit as compelling as the action, but instead we’re left cold by his relationships outside of the army. For a man who felt such a deep empathy for his brothers-in-arms, its hard to believe that he could be so distant with his own children and his wife, whose wishes he seemed to have scant regard for. When the movie moves the story from Iraq to the US nothing really resonates with the viewer, and the direction from Eastwood feels almost sterile, as if he himself had no interest in telling the tale of Kyle’s private life.
American Sniper is only really on point when Kyle is sweating it out with his comrades in the searing heat and rubble-strewn streets where he spent most of his service. Acting as a guardian angel for his squad, Chris Kyle is credited with over 160 kills and the longest successful shot by an American soldier; feats that earned him the moniker “legend” among the infantry of the time. Bradley Cooper does a fine job portraying Kyle, bulking up considerably for the role, but his ability is never stretched. Kyle, probably like most men of his chosen profession, chose to keep his emotions bottled up, burying the memories of the atrocities he both witnessed and was forced to perpetrate in the name of freedom, so we’re left with neither a bravura performance nor a bad one; its simply underwhelming.
While it’s understandable that certain liberties were taken to spice up the action and make it more engaging, after a time it still becomes a little stale and repetitive. An ongoing cat and mouse duel with another sniper feels forced and the conclusion to Kyle’s story is rushed, even with the lengthy running time. And yet, American Sniper is a compelling watch, if only for the fact that when all is said and done, it’s still almost impossible to figure the guy out; to separate the man from the legend of what he accomplished.
(Images courtesy Warner Bros, Collider, Tumblr, Empire)