Monday, 26 January 2015

Review: American Sniper

Year: 2014 (U.K Release 2015)
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenplay: Jason Hall
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller

Synopsis is here

One of the opening scenes of American Sniper sees a young Chris Kyle standing up for his brother who is attacked by a bully at school. Afterwards, at the dinner table Kyle’s father informs him that there are three types of people in this world: Sheep, Wolves and Sheepdogs and that he hopes for his sons to make sure they are the right type. The scene primes the viewer for the rest of this biopic, based on Kyle, a divisive character who was labelled the most lethal sniper in U.S history. When Kyle witnesses 9/11 on his T.V later in the film you see he’s reminded of the conversation. He knows which type of person he wishes to be. By the end of the film, so do we.

As a director, Clint Eastwood shoots from the hip. His work ethic is short, sharp and to the point. Something that shows in American Sniper. A simply constructed feature, which is built in a way to try and mirror the audience which views it. Gung-ho conservatives will go nuts for the “calm Zen” Kyle kills Iraqi soldiers with, yet the film is also punctuated with scenes that may have bleeding liberals talk about the inner conflicts of a difficult man. Although many are angrier at how Kyle’s heroism is portrayed. The film as a whole, tries to maintain a certain balance. However, said balance will be tipped, by how people perceive the ongoing conflicts that the west have faced with the Middle East, as well as people’s knowledge of Chris Kyle.

Starting with a first act which feels too much like an Army recruitment video, American Sniper’s aesthetics have been so well known in other more pro-army movies or adverts that they have a hawkish feel to them, but they have a corniness that doesn’t ring true. Kyle witnesses the fall of the twin towers and decides immediately to sign up to the marines to fight in the Iraq war. This is dubious when we consider that it’s the war in Afghanistan, which is the response to the 9/11 attacks. But the moment itself, plays with a sense of naivety that cheapens such a large decision.  Much of the film’s first segment has that feel to it, in the same way that blockbusters often simplify the Armed Forces.

The film’s middle segment, in which we see Kyle as he serves four tours with the Marines, hold the film's strongest moments. Held together by the two solid performances from Cooper and Miller and some fantastic firefight set pieces. The film excels is showing the conflict between Kyle’s wish to serve his country and his home life. We witness Kyle struggles with PTSD as the effects of war take his toll. Much has been said about Kyle himself and his lack of remorse over the people he killed. American Sniper softens such aspects and gives the shooter a lot more benefit of the doubt over the “savages” he dispatches. Cooper's Kyle has moments of realisation of how troubling he finds his situation, but such scenes lack the resonance that Kathryn Bigelow provided in both The Hurt Locker (2008) or Zero Dark Thirty (2012).  We observe the western fatalities in stats, but we see Iraqi’s displayed as little more than two dimensional characters, only ever considered as the “enemy” to be shot. Only once or twice does Kyle’s heroism feels earned in the film. One example is a small but affecting scene in which a young injured solider informs Kyle on how he save his life.

The film’s final codec does little to help extend the problematic feelings of Kyle, his character and his beliefs. Softening a man whose viewpoint should be harder to relate to in real life. The characters final moments are not seen, although they are the most telling. As it reminds us of how fractured war can leave a person. One thing the film suggests, and this is also mentioned in Kyle’s book, is his unwavering belief in his countryman as a soldier. However, due to how uninterested the film is in making the secondary characters become believable support, the film stumbles.

Yet Eastwood’s straight shooting style and his avoidance of politics of any real kind often shows just how palpable he makes Kyle and American Sniper for a layman such as myself. It is an interestingly crafted piece of historical fiction. Much like the successful and violent FPS Soldier of Fortune, the enemies against Kyle have no definition, which makes it easier to relate to Kyle and his macho, black and white world view. It’s even more fascinating to see just how entertaining Eastwood can often make the film. The film features solid action sequences, the direction of the actors is effective and with a running time of over two hours, the film rolls at a good pace. Although the likes of Haneke would have a field day with how the film's violence is portrayed.

Despite my misgivings about the film (particularly its final flag waving moments). This is still the same director whose Million Dollar Baby (2004) openly debated assisted suicide with a keen eye and whose Gran Torino (2008) was strong enough to bring a certain amount of sympathy to a bitter conservative racist. Although documentaries such as The Tillman Story (2010) provides more complex insight into a famous soldier, American Sniper still manages to arouse strong feelings about peoples' dealings with middle east, even if the film willfully avoids some of the murkier elements of its subject. American Sniper is not the perfect portrayal of someone that many consider a hero, but it is an engrossing and somewhat troubling examination of how modern warfare can be depicted on screen.