There are a few moments in American Sniper when it looks like the movie is going to start examining the psychological impact of being the deadliest military sniper in U.S. history. So much killing, even justified killing, the kind that saves your fellow soldiers — that must weigh on a person, right?
We’ve followed Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), a swaggeringly patriotic Texas meathead, as he’s distinguished himself among Navy SEALs as the best marksman in Iraq, both in quantity and quality, saving untold American lives one headshot at a time. His cohorts call him “The Legend,” which must produce conflicting emotions. We know he leaves behind a wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), and a growing family every time he re-ups for another tour. We can’t help but wonder what effect all of this has on him.
And then, curiously, every time it seems like we’re moving into that portion of Kyle’s story, the movie flees introspection and gets back to the important work of showing how good Kyle is at his job. Back in the States, he reacts with alarm to a sound that reminds him of gunfire — but nope, no, he’s fine. Never mind. A fellow veteran mentions how messed up some guys are when they come back; Kyle hems and haws for a second, then ends the conversation. Nothing to worry about. He misreads a harmless situation as dangerous, overreacts, chats with a doctor at the V.A. hospital for a minute, and then he’s good to go. Taya delivers a predictable line — “Even when you’re here, you’re not here!” — and then, later on, says something about how proud she is of how far he’s come. Wait, when did THAT happen?
American Sniper, based on Kyle’s book and directed with dogged perfunctoriness by Clint Eastwood, is basically The Hurt Locker with all the nuance and self-examination removed. What’s left — a series of high-tension war anecdotes — is often riveting, and well edited (by Eastwood regulars Joel Cox and Gary Roach) for maximum sweaty-palms effect. Cooper’s performance, more intense than we’ve seen him do before, is solid and as thoughtful as the surface-level screenplay allows.
For a while, that’s good enough. Perhaps to hide the fact that there’s no real through line, the script (by Jason Hall) hopscotches through time, showing Kyle’s upbringing (his dad: “You’re blessed with the gift of aggression”), his love of hunting, his eagerness to serve his country after 9/11. He pals around with a series of soldiers, engaging in camaraderie, talking about their fiancees moments before being shot, that sort of thing.
But in the back of our minds, we know there’s got to be more to Chris Kyle — more to the movie — than this. I said before that we can’t help but wonder how his experiences are affecting him. Part of the reason we wonder is that we can’t imagine where else the movie is going to go if not there. No other threads have been introduced, no subplots that could potentially lead the story in an unexpected direction.
And so when the movie ends without Kyle really struggling, or even examining himself beyond a few cursory glances … well, why did we watch it, then? What message are we supposed to get out of it? That being a sniper is dangerous, intense, and exciting, but doesn’t really have any significant downsides as long as you’re great at it? Never mind whether this superficiality makes the movie reckless, it makes the movie pointless.
This blithe disinterest in going beneath the surface extends throughout the film. The soldiers constantly refer to Iraqis as “savages” while their own actions are unquestioned — and the film never presents a counterpoint to either point of view, to suggest that maybe some Iraqis are OK, or that there might be shades of gray in the war. Eastwood’s view is adamantly black-and-white. And that makes for dull drama.
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