AMERICAN SNIPER (letterboxd review)
This review reportedly contains spoilers.
Firstly: I'm a huge proponent of separating the Art from the Artist when it comes to objectionable, scandalous, or criminal behavior (take the "cases" of Roman Polanski and Woody Allen, etc — not that the actions and reps of those two should be conflated, mind you...), and I'll approach this review with the same respect to Chris Kyle, who it now seems was rather fond of hyperbole, embellishment, and the occasional flat out lie in regards to recounting his "heroic" exploits. So yeah, I'll be judging the film on its own merits, not its factual accuracy or veracity... same as I would with JFK or FOXCATCHER or LONE SURVIVOR or any other biopic or film that's "based on a true story" and takes dramatic liberties.
Eastwood's direction is as solid as ever. In this day and age of massive coverage and furious editing, I love the slow, sure, measured pace of an Eastwood film. The rock solid framing, the unobtrusive and justified movement of the camera. The film has a great look and palette (thanks to DP Tom Stern), and was edited seamlessly by Joel Cox and Gary Roach. Also in play was a solid (again, unobtrusive) score that didn't try to make us feel anything other than the tension and suspense of the theater of war (the film's main scoring/theme was written and performed by Eastwood himself).
Moving on to Jason Hall's very solid script (aside from ducking what promised to have been a mind-blowing ending, more on that below)...
Narratively, the film plays in a somewhat episodic manner (as do most chronology biopics and some war films in general). There are obvious dramatic throughlines, such as the tracking of the toll these constant, prolonged deployments take on the families back in garrison (as a former member of the military and a military brat, I have often wondered at the military's encouragement of active duty personnel starting families.. then again, I recognize that having a family to return to is incentive to dig deep on the battlefield). This episodic treatmnt means a lot of war and sniping set pieces, all of which were effectively rendered, if not as tense as, say, some of the scenes in THE HURT LOCKER for instance. There is another throughline of Kyle's near-equal, an Al Qaeda sniper who wreaks havoc in Sadr City. This subplot felt to me a little bit like a Hollywood fabrication, as if the film felt the need to build for Kyle a singular worthy adversary or foil — I will have to do a little more research and see if this was the case or not.
The other obvious dramatic throughline is territory that has been well tread in films from COMING HOME to THE HURT LOCKER: the return of a soldier from combat, how he assimilates back into "the world" of kids and barbecues and small talk and grocery shopping. While this material has been covered before, it's something we need to be keenly aware of and invest more of our national consciousness towards. PTSD (what used to be called "shell shock") is a real phenomenon with real world implications for untold veterans and their families. Suicide is pervasive among returning combat vets, and those who don't end their own lives often commit violent crimes against others, or end up homeless and penniless and wrestling with the horrors they've experienced on their own. The VA tries, but they are overloaded and underfunded and when wars drag on endlessly and vets experience several back-to-back combat tours as did Kyle, it takes a serious toll — no matter if you are the mentally toughest SOB on the plant (as Kyle is initially portrayed in the film) or not. The deconstruction of Chris Kyle from mental and emotional stalwart to someone who has trouble assimilating and has to come to grips with this fact and admit it before his inner turmoil engulfs his family is one of the more compelling elements of the film, on a human level. It's not FULLY explored, but we get the picture and Bradley Cooper shows more emotional range here than he has in most (if not all) of his previous roles.
On to Cooper, and the rest of the performances: As is the case in most Eastwood films, performance is the name of the game. Again, he doesn't try to dazzle you with the camera and his visual stylings... this is an old school director (and actor, of course) who respects the craft enough to settle the camera and let his actors do work in the frame. Sienna Miller does a good job of emoting, even if her character treads stock tropes and her scenes are somewhat redundant. I might have even appreciated more scenes of her at home alone, forging ahead with the children, dealing with all of the pervasive loneliness and fear that a military spouse endures while their counterpart is in a combat zone. Most of what we get with her, until Kyle is back in garrison, are harried phone calls from Chris as he prepares to snipe someone or is under fire. Still, she comports herself well in the role, as do all of the ancillary characters, from the insurgents and Al Qaeda operatives to Kyle's fellow troops.
So there you have it — a very well executed film that deals with real issues, offers tense (if not extremely tense) combat scenes, and a (thus far) career defining role for Cooper. Kyle may have been a bit of a superhero according to the movie (and his self-aggrandizing personal accounts), but the film did an admirable job of deconstructing the character. I did, however, question his means of "helping" veterans in the later stages of his life... was taking these troubled, dangerous, and often unstable men to the gun range really the best way to get them to cope with the horrors they'd experienced?
In regards to my aforementioned ducking of a potentially mind-blowing end scene, perhaps the blame lies more with avowed gun rights advocate Eastwood than the screenwriter or any other party (and perhaps this was done on the insistence of Kyle's family, to include his father who reportedly sad he would "unleash hell" if his son's memory was tarnished by Eastwood and company) — but the film misses a HUGE opportunity in my mind and for this transgression I knocked anywhere from half a star to a full star off its rating. What I am talking about is the cowardly decision to post-script Kyle's death with a single line scrawl.
I wanted this scene. The film NEEDED this scene, and the story deserved it. Knowing how Kyle died (at the gun range, helping other vets with PTSD, and at the very hand of one of these troubled men), I saw this dodge as a huge mistake and think it robbed the film of a tremendously powerful "live by the gun, die by the gun" thematic haymaker. As we had repeatedly seen Kyle instantly end lives in the war with the single pull of a trigger (Eastwood again did a great job of *not* over-dramatizing these kills - trigger is pulled, "BLAM!" goes the gun, and another body simply drops), seeing how his own heroic, larger than life existence was also instantly snuffed out by a handheld killing device would have put a hell of a punctuation mark on the proceedings — what could have been a fair and balanced treatise on guns and gun worship and their role in our society is rendered, by way of this weak scrawl and dodge of seeing a firearm end this heroic sniper's life, an oversimplified glorification of the Gun (and again, we know where Eastwood stands on this issue).
If I made this film, I would have included this scene, and I would have shot it as starkly as possible to underscore the point. Pull a trigger, a life can end in an INSTANT. That is the awesome and terrifying power of the gun, no matter the skill or heart of the man who wields it. It really disappointed me when that simple scrawl appeared on the screen and the credits rolled.
All that said, the film captures some bravura filmmaking (that sandstorm set piece is dank) and a terrific performance by Cooper. In closing, as if I need to tell an America that came out for this film to the tune of over a hundred mill on its opening weekend: