Movie Review: “American Sniper” – Shy of the Mark

Written by Spencer Sterritt January 18, 2015

American Sniper, Bradley Cooper, Clint Eastwood, Chris Kyle

“American Sniper,” which has finally expanded after an incredibly profitable limited release, hearkens back to earlier Clint Eastwood films of stoic death-dealers. It’s a welcome return after his “Jersey Boys” misfire, but an ineffective blend of action movie cliches and underacting keeps “American Sniper” from hitting its target.

A beefed up and bearded Bradley Cooper stars as Chris Kyle, the real life Navy SEAL sniper who was labelled as the most effective military sniper in US history. Opening with a tense scene involving a mother and child armed with a grenade, “American Sniper” quickly flashes back to Kyle’s pre-military life before moving on through his four tours of duty. Sienna Miller plays his wife back home, and a cavalcade of character actors like Sam Jaeger, Luke Grimes, and Kyle Gallner play the various Marines Chris Kyle is charged with protecting.

“Do you ever think that… you might have seen things or… done some things over there that you wish you hadn’t?”

As you can tell from the gruff beard and new muscle this is Bradley Cooper’s deepest foray into “serious” acting. His turns in “Silver Linings Playbook” and “The Place Beyond the Pines” are much better performances though. It’s not that he doesn’t have the acting chops to pull it off, but he’s not memorable as a soldier. Anyone could have been cast as Chris Kyle and it wouldn’t make much of a difference. His performance in scenes between and after tours are much more relaxed and confident, and it’s these scenes that justify his nomination for Best Actor at the upcoming Academy Awards.

American Sniper, Bradley Cooper, Chris Kyle

Though “American Sniper” is being promoted as a war movie, the scenes back home between tours and after his honourable discharge are the most rewarding. For the last twenty minutes the film shifts gears into a story about PTSD, and features some of the most affecting scenes Clint Eastwood has ever shot. War films that shift focus to life after the war often drag in the final minutes (I’m looking at you “Hurt Locker”), but Eastwood handles the change in tone confidently without losing any momentum.

“If you think that this war isn’t changing you you’re wrong. You can only circle the flames so long.”

That confident direction goes out the window during the more chaotic action scenes, which are staged like a shootout from “Call of Duty.” Scenes with just Cooper and his rifle, specifically two involving children as potential targets, are focused and intense. It’s a shame the rest of the action scenes weren’t shot with the same sensibilities. The final battle consists of US soldiers holding a rooftop until they can be extracted (while a sandstorm moves in), exactly like a moment out of any “Call of Duty” or “Battlefield” game where you have to shoot shit until a timer runs out. These scenes hew closer to something in a Peter Berg or Michael Bay flick and they do not mesh well with the quieter and more intense sniper scenes.

American Sniper, Bradley Cooper, Clint Eastwood, Chris Kyle

“American Sniper” is really off-target with the introduction of a (fictive) enemy sniper named Sheikh Al-Obodi. It reeks of Hollywood interference to give the film a bad guy when it doesn’t need one. Al-Obodi, most likely a composite of various snipers Chris Kyle faced off with in real life, was added to the script back when Steven Spielberg was on hand to direct, ostensibly to create more psychological conflict. He is nothing more than a face though, and has no dialogue. He’s nothing more than a shadow to give “American Sniper” a more traditional good guy vs. bad guy structure that rings false.

“American Sniper” can’t decide what sort of movie it wants to be, whether it’s a personal and intimate character study of what war does to soldiers, or a ra-ra Iraq set action bonanza. It features both the best and worst of Clint Eastwood’s directing sensibilities, and finds Bradley Cooper between two very different performances. When it’s good it’s very good, but “American Sniper” never feels on target.

My Rating: 6.5/10

American Sniper poster

Poster by Orlando Arocena

 

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About Spencer Sterritt

Spencer Sterritt

Spencer Sterritt: former Editor-In-Chief for We Eat Films, future President of the Men With Beards Club, and hopefully candidate for ruler of the world.

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