Racking up six Oscar nominations, including Best Motion Picture of the Year, Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published, as well as earning more than $100 million during its first weekend, “American Sniper” is without a doubt a grand success story. Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper work side by side to bring the story of America’s most highly decorated sniper, Chris Kyle, to the silver screen. Reviews for the film have been overwhelmingly positive, with a few exceptions that were immediately and decisively torn apart on multiple media outlets. Many complaints levied against “American Sniper” have been very political and, as a result, heavily polarizing. Some of these critics are correct, this is not a perfect film.
If I were hard pressed to give my reaction to American Sniper in a concise thought, I would say that it is a film of “almosts.” By this I mean that there were elements of the film that almost tiptoed up to that lofty category that good films occupy, but in the end those elements unfortunately fell short.
One of my biggest issues with this film is that in its attempt to fully reconstruct Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle, almost every other character in the film falls by the wayside. I think Bradley Cooper did a very solid job as Chris Kyle, but his performance was not enough to carry the dead weight that was the rest of the cast. Make no mistake, this film is about Chris Kyle’s life as a soldier and as a husband, and focusing the spotlight on him in the film is definitely necessary, but that does not mean that every other character can be static.
I would argue that most of the other characters in the film are two-dimensional and are held up as mirrors to reflect the qualities that made Chris Kyle stand out as a legend; there is barely any depth to the supporting cast. Chris Kyle’s sniper team members are paper-thin. These are his brothers in arms, the men he is fighting to keep safe, and I felt no connection to any of them. Some might call this an unfair comparison, but seeing as it is one of the most decorated war films in the last 20 years, I have no problem making it: “Saving Private Ryan” made me care about every character in that film, both big characters and small ones. “American Sniper” does not come within a mile of touching the level of raw emotion that makes “Saving Private Ryan” so dang great. There are a few moments in “American Sniper” that attempt to provide emotional density, but friends, they are few and far between.
Aside from a handful of genuine interactions that are awkwardly scattered throughout the film, Chris Kyle’s team members have barely any depth or growth. Even his family members, the people most predominant in shaping an individuals life, do not carry any weight. Keir O’Donnell, who plays Jeff Kyle, Chris Kyle’s brother, is a non-character who exits the film as soon as he enters. His arrival and departure from the story are meant as an emotional tool to portray sadness and heartbreak and anger, but the performance is trapped beneath poorly written dialogue.
Siena Miller, playing Chris Kyle’s wife, delivers an emotional performance that is also tethered to awkward and contrived dialogue. The emotion was present, but it was caged behind forced one-liners that were designed to show us Chris Kyle’s emotions. I will concede that she was the least two-dimensional character in the film, but much was still lacking in her role. I appreciate that the film was attempting to externally show us Chris Kyle’s inner turmoil through his relationship with his wife, but frankly, I thought that the attempt was only skin deep.
Part of the film deals with him re-entering the civilian word, and all the emotional, mental, and physical baggage that he carried with him from war. There were a few instances in which the film visually showed us that baggage, which were beautifully acted by both Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller, but the majority of the tension was introduced via the dialogue. Personally, I do not love a film that tells me how I should feel, I love a film that visually encourages emotion. A picture truly is worth a thousand words. I wish that the film chose to stick to simple, but powerful, visual imagery over safe and repetitive dialogue to show us that Chris Kyle was struggling to adjust to his civilian life and his new role as a father.
I found, overall, that the moments of action within this film were rather tedious and bland. I felt that the scenes involving action, particularly when Chris Kyle is behind his sniper, were rushed. I was expecting the film to focus quite a bit more on the action and the tension around sniping. I wish that the film would have slowed down during those scenes to show us his true skill, rather than rushing forward and as a result, meshing together a string of semi-meaningful action sequences.
On the other hand, I think that the film was attempting to show Chris Kyle as more than a sniper. Maybe inundating the audience with Chris Kyle sniping enemy soldiers would have made him look more like a machine than a complex human being. Granted, I do not think that the film did a great job exploring Chris Kyle as a complex human being, but it is just some food for thought. The sniping scenes included were completely unoriginal, save for the two scenes involving children. I thought those short moments were the best parts in the entire film. Those two scenes were jam-packed with a moral tension that I wish would have seeped into other scenes within the film.
I will not go into any further detail to avoid spoiling the film for those who have not seen it. I did enjoy that Clint Eastwood used an enemy sniper and a man known simply as the “Butcher” as antagonists and points of tension throughout the film. But again, they were not explored to their full potential; they were more caricatures of evil people than actual evil people. One of the things that bothered me with the portrayal of the enemy sniper was that the audience was able to see everything that he saw at all times. Clint Eastwood felt it necessary to show us the world through the eyes of the enemy sniper; this might have worked better if the character had any substance. This film is about Chris Kyle, and in my opinion, the audience should only have been able to see the world through his scope, if you will. He is the main character, and by only showing us his point of view, literally and figuratively, I think the connection between Bradley Cooper and the audience would have been phenomenally better. I also think that the tension would have reached a whole new level, because the enemy sniper would have ceased to be a hollow villain and instead would have been transformed into a lethal, faceless, ever-present threat. That is tension, and I think that the film missed out on an incredible opportunity.
I think that “American Sniper” failed on many fundamental cinematic levels, which truly saddens me. The story was there, Chris Kyle’s legacy and sacrifice were there, the film had an experienced director and cast, but the writing and the implementation of that writing were shoddy at best. The characters were shadows of human beings. I would argue that film, in many respects, is meant to show us more than shadows of people, but actual people with whom we can make a connection. Visual storytelling, I believe, could have made these characters complete and solved a majority of the film’s issues. Visual imagery is a tried and true method to elicit emotions when words ultimately fail to do so. This is a hollow film that could have been so much more.
words_collin stevens. photo_warner bros.