The opening shot of American Sniper is of a large tank advancing down an empty, broken Iraqi street. The camera pans over a close-up shot of the vehicle’s tread as it slowly crushes the rubble of the village further into dust. It’s a simple shot, but an imposing one, rigid and forceful, much like the US ground forces accompanying it. Framed at ground-level from behind shattered columns and peeking from darkened rooms, the troops are almost frightening, aliens in a world that doesn't understand them. It’s a small touch by director Clint Eastwood, but it has a strong impact, and shows just how foreign the United States really must look to the Middle East.
Above it all is Bradley Cooper’s Chris Kyle in his sniper’s nest, crosshairs anchored to a woman and her child, a grenade handed between them. In a moment, it’s clear that this is the man who decides who lives and who dies, and he well aware of that. Cooper downplays his performance to great effect, fit for the strict professionalism and brutal rawness of the war’s demands on him. It’s a promising start.
A promising start that the film completely fails to follow through on. One of the least satisfying jump cuts in recent memory rips us from the front line in Iraq to the set of a Sherwood Pictures film, where the young Chris Kyle learns about rifle care and that he’s been called to protect the weak, whether they like it or not. At dinner, Kyle’s father somberly delivers a speech about the world’s weak “sheep,” evil “wolves,” and the “sheepdog,” which he tells Kyle he must grow up to be. The humility and gentle charm of the adult Chris Kyle contrast sharply to this savior complex that the film’s early characters have.
Normally this would be the introduction to the main character’s personal conflict, where the evils of war must be balanced against the need to protect and serve. However, nothing during the entire film’s running time really counters the aggressive rhetoric of Kyle’s father or church, leaving the above speech coming off more like the film’s manifesto. It’s a curiously tone-deaf move coming from the typically anti-war bent of Eastwood.
This is only further reinforced by the utter one-dimensionality of American Sniper’s portrayal of Iraqis. The most positive role the film can offer is a couple of defenseless civilians scrounging for a couple thousand Benjamins from the State Department, in exchange for the whereabouts of “The Butcher,” a brutal al-Queda operative with an unpleasant taste for drills. Kyle’s nemesis, a sniper as well, is portrayed as an outright supervillain, readying his weapon in dimly lit rooms, and too slippery to ever quite get caught.
With American Sniper mostly being billed as entertainment, this would all be tolerable if it was entertaining. But with the exception of a few intense firefights, the film sluggishly lumbers from tour to tour to further tour. What should be nerve-racking suspense as the SEALs go door to door searching for their mark quickly becomes rote non-drama with its less than inspired editing. No doubt it's an accurate portrayal of what being a Navy SEAL in Iraq is actually like, but here's a point where a little artistic license would have gone a long way. There's no need to sacrifice entertainment on the altar of realism, as The Hurt Locker can attest.
Cooper performs well enough here, but he’s been far better when given more to work with in, say, Silver Linings Playbook. And although there is a third-act stab at commentary on PTSD and the price war has on the nation’s veterans, it’s disappointingly half-hearted.
What a film doesn’t say often means more than what it does. American Sniper’s lack of nuance, flat characters, and by-the-book action scenes leave it scraping for something meaningful. It doesn't take much to say war is hell, but it takes a lot more to show it.