By: Kevin Jordan
If only this movie were as interesting as its preview.
When you were in school, you probably asked the following question at least once a week – “why are we learning this?” That’s the way I felt after watching American Sniper, a movie that managed to make sniping and war sound like a lesson as given by Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. While I didn’t actually fall asleep during the movie, I found my mind wandering as much as any bored student in school.
American Sniper is based on the autobiography of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL who served four tours of duty as a sniper in Iraq after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Before you get upset that I’m about to give a negative review of this film, know that it has nothing to do with the actual Chris Kyle and everything to do with the movie being just above lousy. I’m glad there are guys like Kyle that are willing to sacrifice themselves for our country, just like I’m sad there are directors like Clint Eastwood making disappointing movies about those guys.
Since this movie is getting award buzz, you’ve probably seen the previews more than once and you were just as interested in seeing this movie as I. The preview shows Chris (Bradley Cooper) in the back of a Humvee, talking to his pregnant wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), on a satellite phone when Chris’s team comes under enemy fire. Chris drops the phone and Taya drops to her knees as she listens to the battle, fearing the worst. It’s a very engaging scene because you immediately are concerned for Chris and Taya. Unfortunately, the preview is more tense and engaging than nearly the rest of the entire film and whatever relationship those two had in real life is barely displayed in the film.
The biggest problem with the movie is it never commits to any narrative and by the end of the film you won’t know what the point of the movie was. That preview scene should have been a crucial part of the story, but it turns out to be one of a string of anecdotes from Chris’ life. That preview scene would have nicely fit a number of possible narratives:
- Chris and Taya’s relationship and the strain his deployments put on it.
- A rival sniper trying to take out Chris and collect a bounty.
- The hunt for the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
- The hunt for al-Zarqawi’s enforcer, “The Butcher.”
- The point of the war and its effect on our soldiers.
- Chris helping wounded vets or those with PTSD cope with rejoining American society.
Any one of those had the potential to be a really compelling movie, but Eastwood and writer Jason Hall seemed bent on sticking to a clinical accounting of Chris’ stories while not exploring any of those narratives so you never feel like anything was at stake during the movie. Of course, it’s hard to be too surprised by Eastwood considering he’s the same guy that lectured an empty chair at the Republican National Convention just a couple of years ago.
Because they chose not to flesh out any of those narratives, this movie could have been about any American soldier of the past 13 years. Chris is portrayed as a guy whose entire motivation is to protect America, a guy whose multiple tours have changed him, a guy whose family is breaking down due to his absences, and a guy who has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after his tours. Doesn’t that describe a large population of American soldiers? Does the fact that he is billed as the most lethal sniper in American history matter at all in this movie considering his missions are almost never loftier than “provide cover for squads clearing houses?” None of the events depicted truly connect with the events preceding or following, regardless of whether they occur at home or in the field. The question I found myself continually asking during the way-too-long two-hour-and-twelve-minute running time is “why are we seeing this?”
For comparison, we can look at a couple of other (much better) sniper movies – Sniper (with Tom Berenger and Billy Zane) and Enemy at the Gates (with Jude Law and Ed Harris) – both of which have very defined narratives so you know what’s at stake. In Sniper, Berenger and Zane are on an assassination mission, but the movie is really about what it takes to be a sniper and kill another person (incidentally, the idea of killing people is definitely not a concern in American Sniper except when it’s a child). Enemy at the Gates is a much closer comparison as it is based on the tales of the most decorated Soviet sniper of World War II (Vasily Zaitsev), specifically focusing on his months-long duel with a German sniper in Stalingrad during the war. Enemy at the Gates is the movie American Sniper wanted to be (American Sniper even steals Enemy at the Gates’s opening scene depicting the young sniper hunting with his father), but fails in every way possible.
If I haven’t convinced you of how lazy this storytelling was, consider this example of Eastwood and company falling asleep at the wheel. Chris is portrayed as having gone through SEAL training prior to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and during that training he tells a drill instructor that he is 30 years old. At the end of the movie, we are told he is killed in 2013 at the age of 39. How did Chris manage to age only nine years over a (minimum) twelve year span? Remember, the writer actually wrote that down in the screenplay.
Despite the fact that the movie is essentially pointless and storyless, Cooper keeps the movie from being a complete waste of time. There is simply no way anyone envisioned this kind of performance when we saw him playing a douchebag in The Wedding Crashers, and Silver Linings Playbook seemed like more of an anomaly than anything. He appeared to be destined for a career of fun action romps and dirty comedies, but now we realize we’ve been underestimating him. I wish I could say the same thing about Sienna Miller, but Taya was so one-dimensional and under-used after her initial meet-cute bar scene with Chris, that Miller never stood a chance.
Before I go, you should know that I have not read the book, nor had I even heard of Chris Kyle prior to seeing this movie. I have read a few things regarding the authenticity of his stories, but none of that affected my opinion of this movie. Maybe he was an American hero or maybe he was just another soldier, but either way, this movie didn’t care.
Rating: Ask for six dollars back and for Eastwood to quit lecturing. …Bueller?