Movie Reviews

American Sniper Film Review: War Strikes Close to Home

[Warning! May contain spoilers]

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American Sniper set January box-office records as it went into wide release earlier this month. This 2014 American biographical war drama film is directed by Clint Eastwood and written by Jason Hall. The film is based on US Navy SEAL sniper Christopher Scott “Chris” Kyle’s autobiography American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in US Military History.

American Sniper stars Bradley Cooper (Chris Kyle) and Sienna Miller (Taya Kyle) with Luke Grimes, Kyle Gallner, Sam Jaeger, Jake McDorman, and Cory Hardrict in supporting roles.

The film’s world premier was on November 11, 2014 at the American Film Institute Festival. The initial limited theatrical release followed in the US on Christmas day, allowing the film to qualify for several Academy Award nominations.

As it went into wide release on January 16, 2015, American Sniper set numerous box-office opening records, such as the records for highest opening for a film released in January. The film also gave Eastwood the biggest opening of his career as director, as well as becoming the second highest grossing war film in the US.

By the end of the holiday weekend, American Sniper earned more than $100 million in admissions, a record amount for an R-rated war film.

During the 87th Academy Awards, the film received 6 nominations in total, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Bradley Cooper, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

 

Plot

US Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle is the Legend. With his pinpoint accuracy, he saves countless lives on the battlefield. With 255 kills, 160 of which were officially confirmed by the Department of Defense, Chris is the most lethal marksman in US military history.

But you wouldn’t know that just by looking at Chris. He’s not your 8-foot tall, decorated soldier jangling medals –just a laidback, brawny ol’ cowboy with a worn-out baseball cap and Southern drawl. But once he’s behind a sniper rifle in battle-scarred Iraq, Chris is your own avenging warrior – a constant threat to the unseeing enemy.

Perched on a rooftop with a finger set on the trigger, Chris is the hand of judgment that decides between life and death. If a man or woman sneaks up and threatens the lives of his comrades, Chris will know and will respond with a bullet on your head. With a small spray of blood, one life is gone while many others are saved.

It’s tough work, but no one does it better. Chris was so lethal that he became one of the most coveted targets of the insurgency, with the enemy slapping a solid $80K bounty on his head, dubbing Chris the Devil of Ramadi. But the threats of the insurgents didn’t bother the Legend. In fact, he signed up for four tours of duty and seemed almost invincible. The Legend thrived in the run-down buildings of Iraq, embracing the heat and the danger lurking about.

Back home to his wife and kids, however, Chris is stuck in a battle he couldn’t leave behind. In American Sniper, it was home that felt dangerous to the Legend.

Home is where the war is.

American Sniper is a gripping tale of heroism, dedication, and the struggles survivors of all kinds must endure.

 

Review

Steven Spielberg was set to be part of the project before he exited early last year, but the film was more on Eastwood’s alley, emerging as arguably his strongest, most unrelenting effort in the years since Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima.

What’s pretty clear about his previous films and American Sniper is that not all directors share Eastwood’s passion and confidence with large-scale, action-packed war films, much less his penchant to delve deeper into the brutality of what he shows the audience, which is to acknowledge both the necessity and futility of violence while looking for more honest, unconventional, and equivocal representations of heroism.

Eastwood directs the old-fashioned way, and in a literal sense, too. He puts the camera where it truly belongs and gives actors plenty of room to work so they won’t lose track of the scene. As always, his style is clean and shadowy, with scenes that are as delicate as a whisper.

Eastwood sure is a traditionalist, but he’s not a perfectionist. Some of his works, particularly the later films, can be pretty rough around the edges. But nobody could do it better than Eastwood when it comes to directing an all-American movie these days.

It’s important to point out stuff like this, especially with American Sniper. The film opens our eyes to the harsh reality. Nobody is cheering the shots, not even the Legend himself, who sees it as lesser of two evils. More than anything, the film delivers a nuanced, humanizing look at Chris and combat veterans in general. Like what Chris tells a doctor shortly after his fourth and final tour, “I was just protecting my guys — they were trying to kill our soldiers.” This also shows us that Chris clearly wasn’t adjusting well with life back home. “The thing that haunts me,” Chris said in one the most revealing parts of the film, “are all the guys that I couldn’t save.”

American Sniper begins with Chris – and the audience – feeling dread over the decision Chris has to make in his first call of duty, successfully setting the tone for the next 2 hours or so. The film isn’t an overzealous endorsement of war. Rather, it has an unbiased approach to the politics of war. Here, we see American soldiers in Iraq questioning the point of the war. Even Chris’ own brother, who returns after a tour in the Marine Corps, has his own reservations; offering a particularly sharp and concise explanation of his feelings towards what’s going on in war-torn Iraq, which puzzled Chris. We also see a family of a fallen comrade asking the same questions, later discovering that the fallen comrade has begun expressing the same sentiments in his letters back home. Scenes like this show the audience that American Sniper treads a rocky road to a jingoistic bandwagon, contrary to what Seth Rogen and others think.

Chris may not have expressed his doubts, but it’s clear in the first few minutes of the film that he’s not driven by politics. For instance, there was a flashback to Chris’ childhood where he recalls his father teaching him and his brother about the world being divided into wolves, sheepdogs, and sheep, with sheepdogs defending the latter from the former.

Eastwood probes into what really drives Chris to keep returning to Iraq. As seen in the movie, Chris enlists after the US Embassy bombings in Africa in 1998, and seeks combat after the tragic 911 incident to defend his country. Even after his initial tour, Chris keeps returning to the war zone in the hopes of protecting his comrades. That was his motivation every time he pulled the trigger. For him, it isn’t sport, it isn’t for glory and fame, and it certainly isn’t for politics.

But where American Sniper particularly excels is its portrayal of Chris’ struggles through his duty in combat, fighting his own demons and his drifting farther from his family, and how engaging with fellow veterans after his final tour brings him back “home”.

Chris transfers his protective impulses from the battlefield to his comrades who are still struggling to recover. In a tragic turn of events, Chris ended up giving his own life in his effort, with the end of the film showing his funeral processions and memorial service. (Audience members should come prepared for the shock – along with tissues.)

Like other films directed by Eastwood, American Sniper centers on a man who is doing something morally wrong, but for the sake of ensuring a better future. And, like so many of Eastwood’s earlier movies, it doesn’t really question the main character’s values or reasoning, focusing instead on the toll – more spiritual than psychological – that his decisions take on him.

American Sniper definitely has a few flaws. It’s not perfect and at times a little corny, but it’s also ambivalent and complex in ways that are uniquely Eastwoodian. The film isn’t just about one American sniper, as it represents hundreds of thousands of veterans who continue to struggle from the long, seemingly endless war, regardless of their politics or enthusiasm for their beliefs, and the policies that brought them to the battlefield.

 

The Actors

American Sniper’s whirlwind success stems from powerful performances, skillful direction, but mostly from the compelling and ultimately tragic story of the late Chris Kyle.

Bradley Cooper, in particular, does some of his best acting ever in this film. Beefed up to make himself closely resemble the Legend, Cooper subdues his acting prowess, giving his character in the film a sense of credulity and edge. He evokes a personality you cannot mess with, but not a malicious one. His lack of self-doubt never comes off as alienating, even at moments when it seems inappropriate, like when Chris finds out for the last time that he can’t be his brother’s keeper. Moments like this are strewn throughout the film, making it one of the more resilient and effective war films in American cinema.

Sienna Miller deserved her portrayal of Chris’ wife, Taya Miller. The rest of the cast delivers realistic performances, especially the wounded veterans who play themselves in the final act.

 

Verdict

American Sniper is a skillfully made, straightforward war film that gradually develops into something more complicated and thought-provoking.  Hard-wiring the audience into Chris’ battle-scarred psyche, this harrowing and intimate case study offers insights into the physical, psychological, and spiritual toll exacted on the battlefield, and striking a resonant chord that finds Eastwood’s direction in very fine form.

The film is rated R for strong and disturbing war violence, explicit language throughout, including some sexual references. American Sniper delivers a tense and vivid depiction of a real-life subject and of combat violence that makes it inappropriate for all but older and more mature teens.