This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 18th January 2015
It gives one an uneasy feeling when a film like American Sniper opens in the US on Christmas Day. It’s a double-spaced, large font biopic of Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL sniper who earned the legend “the most lethal sniper in US military history” after he notched up more than 160 kills during four tours of Iraq. As unsavoury as that may sound, you need a Kyle in your battle because he’s the one who picks off the bad guys who are out to get your (good – obviously) guys. The bowing and scraping by Kyle’s fellow troops at the frontline demonstrates how lauded he was.
As directed by Clint Eastwood (still in the game at age 84), Kyle’s trajectory from gun-toting Texan son of a no-nonsense father to appalled patriot as planes fly into the Twin Towers is a pretty by-numbers account. Eastwood is an all-American, flag-flying, meat-and-three-vege filmmaker, and although some scenes dip into the excitement inevitable in a Middle Eastern Conflict Movie, American Sniper is largely routine and unaffecting.
Eastwood has had a long career behind the camera, with the odd winner (Million Dollar Baby) amongst a stream of solid stories which all fall short of extraordinary. (If Mystic River is the exception in this sea of blandness, it’s entirely down to Sean Penn’s performance.)
Bradley Cooper, regular Oscar nominee and Hollywood flavour du jour, performs admirably as the stocky-necked Kyle, simple-minded in his determination to fight for his country and then paralysed by undiagnosed PTSD on each return from duty. Cooper is great, to the extent we believe his Kyle to be a man with a good side (loving husband to Sienna Miller’s pained brunette, caring if not effusive father of two) as well as a keen eye and trigger finger. But Kyle’s inner torment must be explained to us, time and again, through Miller’s fruitless criticism. We’ve seen this all before in the far superior Homeland. We’ve also seen much more gripping battle scenes in nearly every Iraq/Afghanistan War movie from The Hurt Locker to Restrepo.
This uncomplicated movie is complicated by its complete moral ambiguity. Granted, Eastwood isn’t telling us to applaud or abhor Kyle’s actions. Unfortunately, neither does he give us anything to care about.
I can’t speak for homeland Americans, but New Zealand audiences may be unmoved by the patriotism of Kyle’s exploits. Three well-edited set-pieces scarcely quicken the pulse, and because our “hero” and his “baddies” are so one-dimensional, we are left with nothing and no one to invest in.