American Sniper may not be the strongest biopic in the genre, but it is on par with other acclaimed military action-thrillers like Black Hawk Down or The Hurt Locker.
In American Sniper we follow the gut-wrenching account of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), a U.S. Navy SEAL sniper deployed to the Middle East shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. With a "sheepdog's" protective instincts serving as the basis for his moral code, Chris takes to the battlefield like a fish to water, conquering early trepidation to become "The Legend," a.k.a. the most proficient eye-in-the-sky guardian angel that U.S. forces have at their disposal.
For most servicemen and women, that title and acclaim might've been enough - but not for Chris. After returning home from one tour of duty - to his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) and young son - Chris finds that his mind (and heart) are still in the war, so he returns to the fight again, and again, and again. However, with each new tour of duty another piece of Chris' sanity begins to crumble, while his reputation and relentless tactics quickly make him a prime target of insurgent militants - including one Iraqi sniper whose skills just may rival Chris' own.
As the latest Americana-themed cinematic drama from director Clint Eastwood, American Sniper may be a familiar piece of wartime character study - but that doesn't detract from the fact that it is also one of the most thrilling and exciting examples of modern warfare put to film.
From a directorial standpoint, American Sniper is a high accomplishment. Stepping in for Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood brings a vibrant and clear cinematic scope to the work, with a grit and edge that might've been missing from a Spielberg feature. Eastwood's longtime collaborator Tom Stern (Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Invictus) also creates a washed-out, drab, green-tinted look to the cinematography that only enhances the harshness of the Middle Eastern setting, where a majority of the film takes place.
In many ways there are traces of Eastwood's experience and knowledge of westerns that can be seen in the way Sniper stages scenes of gunplay - or even the thrilling anticipation of gunplay. The Middle Eastern terrain recalls badlands and crowded towns from old westerns, with a lot of similar tropes played for great effect (big showdowns and shootouts in a town square, rooftop ambushes, etc.). As evidenced by the trailers and TV commercials, many of American Sniper's big action sequences are wrought with tension and suspense, and are constructed with meticulous detail to both combat tactics and visual storytelling. In short: the action sequences in the film are well done and exciting and make American Sniper worthy of the price of admission for action fans.
The script by Jason Hall (Paranoia) distills the American Sniper book by Chris Kyle (with Scott McEwen and James DeFelice) into a pretty straightforward screenplay. Some may call both the screenplay and the book inaccurate, but for the purpose of telling a cinematic story (whether true or not) Hall has a clear structure and progression set in place (Chris' respective tours of duty and mission goals), with every stop along the way contributing something to the overall narrative of the principal characters (Chris and Taya). Despite that efficiency, however, Hall's script can fairly be criticized for not going deep enough into its subjects.
Chris' story feels somewhat episodic in the telling, with action and significant mission developments dictating the allotment of screen time. That point-to-point movement robs the film of a deeper intimacy with Chris it displays early on. By the second act, Chris' internal narrative is mostly conveyed through Cooper's mannerisms and actions, rather than by what the story allows for us to see. We witness the account of Chris, the warrior, on the battlefield, while a lot of his emotional battles outside of a war zone are treated with fleeting or shallow attention. This becomes a problem at the end of the film, when so much focus has turned from combat action to the effects and meaning (if any) of war. A final action set piece and rushed epilogue do not disguise the fact that Hall's script lacks impactful convergence when it comes to both the central character arc and themes of the story. By the end of the journey, we've simply witnessed a journey, with no larger statement about what the journey means, thematically, or how/why we should relate.
To his credit, Bradley Cooper rises to the task of playing Chris Kyle, conveying more in his stoic (read: emotionally stunted) stare and quiet (almost too reserved) composure than most melodramatic actors would be able to do in full meltdown mode. Indeed, much of the human interest in American Sniper comes from watching how Cooper's version of Kyle reacts (robotically) to such extreme circumstances and tensions. In fact, one of the most ambiguous (and intriguing) aspects of the movie is whether or not Chris' self-assured and righteous patriotism is an actual noble (if naive) sentiment, or an addictive (and implosive) mantra maintained in order to spare himself the weight of what he's done in the name of God and country. Whatever the case, Cooper's performance is a solid and respectable bit of acting - even if it ends up arguably distancing us from who Kyle was, rather than bringing us closer into the mind of the man.
Sienna Miller (Foxcatcher) continues to shed her own starlet persona to do some genuinely good character acting. Whereas she was somewhat underutilized in Foxcatcher, she's given much more to work with as Chris' wife Taya in American Sniper - and even though the character is somewhat of a cliche (the struggling military wife racked with anxiety and later pleading for mental/emotional reconnection), Miller infuses her with enough unique personality to make every tear-jerk dramatic moment worth watching (a scene with Taya overhearing Chris in battle over the phone is a standout). Other faces pop up as Kyle's fellow SEALs or other military personnel (on both sides of the fight); while the ensemble overall is solid, the focus really is on the principal two, as most other players come and go along the journey.
In the end, American Sniper may not be the strongest biopic in the genre, but it is on par with other acclaimed military action-thrillers like Black Hawk Down or The Hurt Locker. If suspenseful action or dramatic insight into the mental burdens put on modern servicemen and women is what you crave, then definitely catch this one in the theater. If you're looking for a history lesson, factual debate, or deeper insight into Chris Kyle the man, then perhaps grab a book and get reading.
American Sniper is now playing in theaters in wider release. It is 132 minutes long and is Rated R for strong and disturbing war violence, and language throughout including some sexual references.