American Sniper Bradley Cooper

American Sniper Review: Allergic to Tension

Friday, January 23, 2015 Rob Samuelson

American Sniper
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writer: Jason Hall
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Sammy Sheik
Rating: Two stars out of five

American Sniper opens with one of the most riveting setups in recent memory. Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is in his perch overlooking an American convoy moving through a bombed out town somewhere in the Middle East – Afghanistan or Iraq, it doesn't really matter. Things move along at a snail's pace.

The soldiers know the drill. They must proceed with caution at all times. The tanks lurch forward gingerly, the soldiers knock down doors, Kyle makes nervous jokes with his lookout. Then he spots something through his scope – a man making a call on his cell phone atop a building. A woman and a boy exit from the ground floor of a building. Kyle reports the suspicious activity and is given the go ahead to take his shot if he thinks his comrades are in danger. The woman hands the boy, perhaps 10 years old, a grenade. Kyle reports his having spotted the weapon. His commanding officer tells him to fire when ready if the boy makes a move. The camera tightens on his trigger finger. His eye twitches. This is tearing him apart. The music heightens, stringed instruments making piercing, cacophonous noises as we see him prepare.

Then nothing. Or rather, nothing that needs to happen at this point of the story. Director Clint Eastwood takes the tensest of moments – I made that top paragraph long and detailed for a reason, to show how to build anticipation – a riveting piece of filmmaking that tightens the screws on the audience like the tautest thrillers Hitchcock ever made, then renders it all inert by going to a flashback of Kyle beating up a bully who in turn beat up his younger brother when they were kids. It violates every rule of tension building. There needs to be a payoff, but only after a seemingly interminable period of time. The viewers must squirm, barely be able to keep their eyes on the screen, hoping, begging for a release. A bait-and-switch is not the release they need, nor does it deepen the moment that precedes it in any way. It is only a distraction, a delaying mechanism, an unwillingness to deal with the consequences of a storytelling decision, a disregard for making a bold mission statement about what your film is and what it stands for.

This sequence of events repeats itself time and again throughout the film. Every moment that could wrestle with a theme of the physical or psychological wounds of war, which the film certainly asks its audience to consider – scenes about Kyle's sky high blood pressure, his grownup brother's shell shock as he leaves his own deployment from Iraq, Kyle's reaction to a friend's death after seemingly being saved, his confession to his wife about his mental scars – it cuts away to something not of the moment – him and his wife simply leaving the doctor's office, his brother hopping on a plane home never to be seen again in the movie, an “onto the next mission” scene after the offscreen death revelation. It is a film that always chooses the comfort of conflict avoidance instead of progressing to an answer or catharsis, be it of the peaceful or violent variety. Perhaps this is Eastwood attempting to comment on the headspace of Kyle, who persistently denies his own post-traumatic stress disorder, but the film shouldn't delve into the same denialism of its characters because those characters' flaws should already be apparent if the filmmaking has been done correctly. And in American Sniper, we are left with a confused jumble, a film that doesn't seem to want to do anything other than to, perhaps, document the treadmill nature of constant deployment during wartime.

It wants to have a villain, so it props up an enemy sniper, Mustafa (Sheik), as the anti-Kyle, an Olympic sharpshooter who guns down many of Kyle's friends in the service. But instead of building this enemy into a real character, it gives him maybe three minutes of screen time in which he is almost entirely silent and mostly aiming his rifle. We don't learn anything about him, his motivation, or really even his affiliation. He shows up in both Afghanistan and Iraq, we're told he's from Syria, and yet we don't get any explanation of why he's suddenly everywhere, killing American servicemen. He's nothing more than a glorified Stormtrooper that Eastwood somehow thinks is the main villain of the piece. If Eastwood were to embrace some schlockier, exploitative elements rather than going for the “authentic” angle. If the film is from Kyle's highly patriotic perspective, give his antagonist some mustache twirling moments. Get subjective and embrace cinema's ability to shape perception. Objective truth is rarely possible in the filmic (any?) medium, but character honesty is within a filmmaker's grasp. If Eastwood were being honest about the onscreen Kyle – the only thing I know about the controversy about the real life Kyle is that there is something of a controversy about the real life Kyle, so that is none of my concern as a moviegoer – he would depict a black and white world where the other side is bad and relishes doing bad things. If they weren't terrible, inhuman things, they wouldn't be enemies of America in Kyle's mind. And that is nothing to say of the film avoiding the real villain, Kyle's inability to reconcile his impotence at actions out of his control.

Bradley Cooper, luckily, is far more interested in being honest from Kyle's perspective. He finds some strong nuggets to grasp onto in his character, and he makes this man with a simple, although by no means easy, worldview believable. We see his pain at being unable to stop the evil of the world – we believe him when he says he is less concerned and guilty about the people he killed than the ones he was unable to save, not that his sins against humanity don't weigh on him tremendously – but unfortunately the deflated balloon of a movie surrounding him wastes his terrific performance.

Oh, and one last thing before we go. When you create the climax for a film, don't set it in a sandstorm, and don't shoot the sandstorm like it's just a cigarette-stain brown blanket being draped over the camera. When watching the final big action set piece, you cannot tell for a second what is happening. It's one of the worst shot pieces of filmmaking in a studio film in a long time. It is the nadir of the movie's laziness regarding living in the moment. And in the end, it's fitting that Eastwood would choose to not allow the audience to see the carnage this escape necessarily required, because he is more interested in coddling the audience – whether they request it or not – and letting them bask in the comfort of being told the “truth” rather than experiencing the honest, visceral nature of it.

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