There are few directors as prolific as one Mr. Clint Eastwood. Eastwood has become famous for his rapid shooting schedules, and his limited number of takes. It is difficult to say whether this is the best approach, as the method has already yielded the pretty lackluster Jersey Boys in 2014. But the good thing about Eastwood’s rapid filmmaking technique is that there is always another one around the corner. In this particular case, Eastwood’s end-of-year film is American Sniper, an adaptation of the memoir by the late Chris Kyle, the military man referred to in the title. Does American Sniper fare any better than the story of Frankie Valli and his crooning buddies?
Bradley Cooper (also a producer) stars as Kyle, an aimless cowboy who is motivated to join the Navy SEALs in the wake of terrorist attacks during the turn of the 21st century. After 9/11, Chris’s unit is deployed to Iraq, forcing Chris to leave his newly pregnant wife Taya (Sienna Miller) for an uncertain future. Chris quickly develops a reputation as a guardian angel for the reconnaissance marines over there, ultimately earning the title of “the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history.” Over the course of four tours, Chris becomes emotionally distant from his family; Taya does her best to keep hold of him, but he may already be lost to a keen obsession with his opposite number in al-Qaeda, a former Olympic sharpshooter known to the Americans as Mustafa (Sammy Sheik).
American Sniper is a more effective biopic than Jersey Boys was, and that may have something to do with actors that actually hold your attention onscreen. Jersey Boys‘ John Lloyd Young has a great voice, but he does not have much screen presence. Contrast that with Cooper who – even when playing a kinda dim murder machine – looks like he belongs in theater in front of a crowd. That sounds like a statement from a member of the Hollywood elite – valuing star power over talent – but Cooper’s charisma is a known quantity, and he brings some layered acting to the performance as well.
Cooper spends a lot of the film’s runtime depicting Chris’s mid-level post-traumatic stress disorder. It would be more impressive, if it were not for Eastwood’s heavy-handed direction. Even when Cooper tries to dig into the emotions Chris quietly processes in his time back stateside, Eastwood feels the need to drive it home with excessive war sound effects. This general lack of subtlety is all over the place – from Chris’s father’s (Ben Reed) dinner-set screed expounding upon the different types of people to an ex-girlfriend plainly declaring every characters’ motivation to a fellow soldier expressing doubt about the war immediately before losing his life. Eastwood cannot let a moment go by without expressly stating its greater meaning, right up through the final scene.
That’s not to say every film should be intentionally obtuse, but there is something to be said for allowing for interpretation, especially in a genre as divisive as the “war film.” The picture, scripted by Jason Dean Hall, takes a slightly complicated look at PTSD, but never really questions the efficacy of the war on terror or the actions Chris takes. There are hints of it here and there in the way the soldiers refer to Iraqis as “savages” or the brief glimpse of Mustafa’s home life, but nothing comes of it. It’s a disappointing direction for a filmmaker who has given equal weight to warring sides before.
“Disappointing” is an appropriate descriptor in general for American Sniper, assuming your expectations for the film were high. Last year’s December-January Navy SEALs movie – Lone Survivor – felt like a more cohesive feature, without feeling the need to include any slow-motion bullets. American Sniper is notable for being another entry in Bradley Cooper’s move toward “serious dramatic actor,” but not for much else. Turns out it doesn’t take much to be “better than Jersey Boys.”