American Sniper

American Sniper (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

Officially credited with one hundred sixty kills over four tours in Iraq, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is known for being the deadliest sniper in American history. Director Clint Eastwood creates a beautiful-looking film and manages to extract a solid performance from his lead actor, but the movie is too long and leaves the audience with a certain level of detachment. By the end, we do not feel as though we know the subject as a complete person but merely a representation of a blindly patriotic man who claims that his actions are motivated by wanting to defend his country.

The setup is particularly strong, beginning with a memorable first scene in which the marksman must make a decision whether to shoot an Iraqi woman and her child who may be a danger to American soldiers standing a couple of feet away. We feel the weight of Kyle’s conundrum as Cooper highlights every blink, inhalation and exhalation, the angling of his arms as his character takes careful aim.

Right away we get the impression that doing what he does is not to be taken lightly—that just because he is far away from the fray does not mean he lacks courage. Having the ability to pull the trigger is one thing but carefully gathering evidence that a person is a threat within a span of a few seconds is something else entirely. At times he must rely on instinct. Instincts can be wrong.

The screenplay is written by Jason Hall and it is inexcusable not to have well-developed supporting characters, especially for a movie that runs above two hours. Kyle’s wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), is not given very much to do other than to look seductive in a bar, act pregnant, and sound worried over the phone. Later in the picture, Taya expresses to her husband that when he is home, although he is physically there, he is not mentally present in the company of her and their children. There are at least three scenes that are very similar to one another and when one considers Miller’s character as a whole, Taya comes across as the nagging wife. We do not see enough of her struggles in being a mother who must raise children on her own while her husband is overseas.

Another character that I thought is worth getting to know further is the Marine who trained becoming a priest (Luke Grimes) prior to enlisting. If the character had been developed, he would have been a great foil for Kyle. Although they ended up in the same place and fighting for the same thing, their starting points, one can argue, are worlds apart. Specifically, I was interested in how a man of faith was able to change the way he thinks and take another life when such an action goes against what he has come to know.

The picture is not short on suspense. When we see what Kyle sees before he takes a shot, there is almost always a moment of suspension—that doubt in the back of our minds, questioning whether he will be able to hit his target at a crucial moment. When the camera is patient but calculating, we are engaged and this sets the work apart from other films that offer junk, empty-calorie violence.

“American Sniper,” based on Chris Kyle’s autobiography, is handsomely made, offering consistent bursts of tension and tragedies, but it suffers from pacing issues and a lack of development of its supporting characters. Inaccuracies from the real story aside, the film is worth seeing and thinking about. Clearly the cost of war should not only be measured in numbers.

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