Monday 19 January 2015


(Clint Eastwood, 2014)

Fascinating, flawed, and fascinatingly flawed, American Sniper is by turns genuinely impressive and disgracefully shoddy. Based upon the autobiography of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) a Navy SEAL with the most confirmed kills of any sniper in US Naval history, it turns its focus chiefly upon Kyle's four tours of duty in Iraq, where he earned the nickname "the Legend" as he picked off insurgents and "military age" males from rooftops.
This is rich material for cinema, and Eastwood does some of it absolute justice. Some of it, however, feels incredibly lazy; a script riddled with horrendous cliches, an approach to the direction of many scenes that feels incredibly rote and casual, and not in a good way, alongside a slew of characters who serve no real narrative function. A good example are the many scenes set back home. The early scenes of Kyle as a boy, defending his brother from schoolyard bullies as a speech from his father on being a sheepdog in a world of wolves and sheep is intercut are one, barely acceptable thing, but the way every later scene seems set in a world of daytime soap ugliness and banality is another. The camera angles seem near-automatic, the lighting flat and colourless, the cuts sluggish. Perhaps Eastwood is making the point that this is how the world looks to Kyle after the hyper-adrenalised world of Iraq, but it seems more likely he is just coasting through large chunks of this film. His attention only really feels fixed upon his material in a handful of terrific set-pieces. Chief amongst these is the climactic firefight which erupts as a sand-storm rolls in, but the framing device wherein Kyle must decide whether or not to shoot a woman and boy he suspects of carrying a grenade is equally powerful.
This is, oddly enough, a sort of super-hero movie. Kyle's abilities are spooky, his prowess legendary among the grunts he sees himself as protecting. He has a couple of arch-enemies: his unit (wearing Punisher skull insignia) become engaged in a lengthy hunt for "the Butcher" and he develops a sort of personal duel with "Mustapha" a Syrian sniper fighting for Al Qaeda. He seems protected - literally above - the sort of fear that assails infantrymen fighting in the same conflict.
These scenes are interesting, often supremely gripping, darkly witty and exciting. And then Kyle returns home to his secret identity, his wife and children and little house in San Diego. Where Bigelow's The Hurt Locker beautifully established the disconnect it's protagonist felt Stateside in one or two brief scenes, Eastwood stretches the same sort of material out across the whole movie here as Kyle returns home, acts like all is well, feels guilty that he's not protecting his brothers in arms in Iraq, listens to his wife (Sienna Miller) complain about how distant he seems, experiences some awkward fatherly moments with his kids (in a couple of instances played by freaky fake robot babies) then goes back for yet another tour. Miller has an absolutely thankless role - whining in improbably articulate lectures about how hard all this is on her, looking frightened when a phone conversation with her husband is interrupted by a ferocious gun battle.
Cooper, however, is the best thing in the movie. There is no little political complexity here; Eastwood seems to avoid making any kind of statement, instead portraying the Iraq conflict as a war without much of a political dimension (which is of course a political dimension all of its own). He is instead concerned with the toll it takes on the men on the ground, and Cooper depicts that beautifully, something frightening sliding behind his face as the movie goes on, an emptiness which morphs into rage in inappropriate situations, his natural charm tweaked somewhat into something awkward and halting.
The post-script further complicates the political resonances here, and is a big part of what makes this film so interesting and (already) misunderstood.

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