Release Date: 16 January 2015
Running Time: 132 min
Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Kyle Gallner, Jake McDorman, Mido Hamada, Luke Grimes
Opening in the UK a day after the Oscar nominations were announced, Clint Eastwood’s biopic cum war film American Sniper hits our shores with six of the buggers, including nods for Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture. The story of the most lethal sniper in US military history, this picture is the latest attempt by Hollywood at turning the complex, morally uncertain war in Iraq into some kind of middle-brow Oscar bait, following in the footprints of films like In the Valley of Elah, Green Zone and The Hurt Locker.
After seeing news reports of US embassies being bombed in Tanzania and Kenya, thick-necked, bronco-riding, Texan patriot Chris Kyle enlists in the navy SEALs at the ripe old age of thirty. Despite being considerably older than all the other recruits, Kyle excels at the usual military training guff: doing push-ups while being shouted at, jogging while being shouted at and shooting at targets on a range while being shouted at. Once trained up, Kyle falls in love and after getting married is promptly shipped out to the middle east. However, the Chris Kyle who returns to Texas is a very different man from the one who left, as the stresses and traumas of several tours in Iraq begin to show.
Eastwood handles the story with assurance and clarity, his unfussy style perfectly suited to the rigid and disciplined lifestyle of those serving in the military. Scenes of combat are well staged; managing to keep a sense of coherence amidst the carnage. After the weird tangents of Invictus, Hereafter and Jersey Boys, it’s good to see Eastwood working on a film that is perhaps more obviously suited to a man of his talents. Bradley Cooper is superb in the lead role as a stoic, intensely focused man who may be starting to quietly come apart at the seams. Lacking in any big grandstanding moments, it’s a wonderfully restrained performance that’s more than matched by that of Sienna Miller’s turn as Kyle’s wife Taya who is equal parts frustrated and loving in the face of her husband’s increasing emotional distance.
Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of director and stars, American Sniper is far too much a film about ‘Murica (fuck yeah!) to offer a meaningful look at the war or its effects on those who fight it. Chris Kyle is presented as some kind of super soldier who can spot insurgents by their elbows, kill from just under two kilometres away and go through four tours in Iraq without getting a scratch. In real life Chris Kyle was a deeply controversial figure (some of the sentiments in the book on which this was based are utterly repellent) while in the film he is portrayed as a saintly figure, a killer with a conscience and a man who is only in the army to protect people. By painting Kyle as a flawless all-American hero, the end product is akin to coffee with too much cream; beige and diluted.
Like a lot of recent films about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is a sense of disconnect between the thrilling tales of heroism depicted and the ugly, senseless waste of human life that exists in reality. Works like Lone Survivor, The Hurt Locker and American Sniper lack the sense of moral outrage of Vietnam war films like Casualties of War or Full Metal Jacket preferring instead to try and wring some patriotic triumphalism from American audiences. Indeed the Vietnam film that these movies resemble most closely is the the jingoistic nonsense of John Wayne’s The Green Berets made in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam war.
A well crafted and acted war drama directed by a Hollywood legend and based on a true story; American Sniper is the kind of easily digestible biopic that Academy voters lap up. It’s solidly made and with a lot to recommend it, just don’t go looking for any shades of grey. There aren’t any, just red, white ‘n’ blue.