Monday, January 19, 2015

American Sniper

American Sniper
Dir. Clint Eastwood

3 out of 5

If there is one quality I admire about Clint Eastwood, filmmaker - and it's probably a quality that contributes to the immense popular appeal of his films - it's that he has no interest in appearing fashionable.  His latest work, American Sniper, takes the memoirs of a famed Navy SEAL and spins it into modern day Sergeant York-style mythmaking, a mostly uncomplicated portrait of an American war hero and, by extension, the American mission abroad.  In the film, Bradley Cooper portrays Chris Kyle - considered to be the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history - during his four harrowing tours in Iraq, and the toll his job takes on his family, particularly his wife Taya (Sienna Miller).  It's another one of Eastwood's well-executed, fundamentally-sound blue collar art projects, a paean to the average man in extraordinary circumstances.

But is it extraordinary enough?  While American Sniper exists to honor Kyle, it also feels like a missed opportunity to delve deeper into the extreme lives of combat veterans.  Eastwood, along with screenwriter Jason Hall, quickly discards the biographical format for a more conventional good-versus-evil struggle, giving Kyle a nemesis in the form of an enemy sniper whose legend is nearly equal to his own.  It sets up a nice dichotomy with plenty of dramatic opportunities, but it also lends the story a slickness that turns most of Kyle's colleagues into one-dimensional ciphers, save for one SEAL (Luke Grimes) whose views on the war gradually evolve into a sort of agnostic professionalism.  (I'd love to see his movie as well.) 

American Sniper also suggests internal turmoil in Kyle's own increasing difficulties adjusting to life stateside.  This is as close as the film gets to thinking critically about any of the larger implications about what Kyle - and an entire generation of Americans - was asked to do.  Eastwood's movie has the whiff of propaganda, but in many ways its straightforward attitudes mirror those of its subject, a committed patriot, soldier, and family man.  Additionally, Cooper's portrayal hints at facets of puckish humor and philosophical intractability (he characterizes a comrade's doubts about the U.S. mission in Iraq as "giving up") that prevent the film from making Kyle a pseudo-saint.  American Sniper is about as good as an unchallenged reading of war can be, humanizing a war hero and mythologizing a war.  It isn't nearly as interesting or daring as other contemporary films on the topic (see: The Hurt Locker, Jarhead, and a dozen documentaries about the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan), yet in today's balkanized cinematic climate, aiming for the middle might be a more radical move.

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