Review – American Sniper

The dehumanising effects of combat come to the fore in Clint Eastwood’s visually powerful, but ultimately conventional examination of one man’s war.

Eastwood has fashioned an efficient and, at times, muscular war movie, but in spite of its cracking central turn American Sniper just misses its target

Eastwood has fashioned an efficient and, at times, muscular war movie, but in spite of its cracking central turn American Sniper just misses its target

Eastwood made his name playing masculine, violent men and since turning his hand to directing has largely stuck to his guns, to varying degrees of success.

His undisputed masterpiece, 1992’s Unforgiven, was a slow ride to hell as it laid bare the sickening emotional consequences killing someone might actually have on its assorted gunslingers, while his celebrated Gran Torino (2008) found its Dirty Harry protagonist forced to face both his own mortality and the changing face of his country.

The 'most lethal' Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) in American Sniper

The ‘most lethal’ Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) in American Sniper

In his latest, Eastwood’s stoical leading man is Chris Kyle, a “legend” among his brothers in arms for having chalked up 160 confirmed kills in Iraq and on whose self-explanatory book American Sniper: The Autobiography Of The Most Lethal Sniper In US Military History the film is based.

We are introduced to Kyle (Bradley Cooper) on just another day in Iraq, with a woman and child in his sights. They may be carrying an explosive device or they may not; it’s up to Kyle to make the judgement in order to keep his fellow marines safe.

Chris Kyle's (Bradley Cooper) nemesis in American Sniper

Chris Kyle’s (Bradley Cooper) nemesis in American Sniper

The film flashes back to varying, defining points in his life, from a childhood hunting trip with his father in which he is taught to be a sheep dog to protect the sheep from the wolves, through to his decision to enlist as a US Navy Seal following the 1998 US embassy bombings. The red, white and blue-blooded all-American gets his chance to put his training into practice in the aftermath of 9/11 and the allied invasion of Iraq.

As Kyle racks up kill after kill – men, women and children – over the course of four tours, the cracks begin to show, both on his psyche and his marriage to Taya (Sienna Miller), while his notoriety leads to a bounty being placed on his head by the enemy.

A rare moment of happiness for Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) and wife Taya (Sienna Miller) in American Sniper

A rare moment of happiness for Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) and wife Taya (Sienna Miller) in American Sniper

Whilst visually arresting and bolstered by a central performance of considerable nuance and intensity by Cooper, American Sniper isn’t anything we haven’t seen before.

Kyle’s back story feels rushed, as if Eastwood is conscious of cutting to the action, while the Iraqis are either faceless enemies, cardboard cutout villains or fodder for Kyle’s sniper rifle.

The most promising character we see from the ‘enemy’ side is a Syrian sniper who incurs Kyle’s wrathful vengeance after shooting one of his friends. Steven Spielberg, who was on board to direct before walking away from the project, wanted to beef up the character and escalate the psychological warfare between the two shooters. It’s a premise that Eastwood, for good or ill, has chosen not to focus on.

The consequences of being a soldier in Iraq takes its toll for Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) in American Sniper

The consequences of being a soldier in Iraq takes its toll for Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) in American Sniper

Aside from a couple of unnecessary slow motion set pieces and a special effects shot of a bullet flying through the air that belongs in a cheaper movie, the various scenes of sharpshooting are disturbing in the matter-of-fact way they are portrayed. The rifle’s sights add an air of detachment from the death we are witnessing, with the exception of a horribly uncomfortable moment when a distressed Kyle has in his sights a young boy undecided whether to fire at an American convoy.

A particularly evocative sequence comes late on when Kyle and his buddies are engaged in a firefight during a sandstorm. It’s a potent image, loaded with hellish intent.

Miller is excellent, but is hamstrung by unoriginal dialogue (“Even when you’re here, you’re not here!”) and little screen time which undermines the scenes she and Cooper share back home. The director tries to emphasise Kyle’s worsening psychological scarring through these moments, but doesn’t give them the time to breathe.

Eastwood has fashioned an efficient and, at times, muscular war movie, but in spite of its cracking central turn American Sniper just misses its target.

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28 comments

  1. Keith · January 19, 2015

    Solid review. It has been really interesting to see the variety of opinions on this movie.

    • Three Rows Back · January 20, 2015

      Cheers Keith. I’ve read all sorts of views on this. It was one of those reviews that took me a while to get into to be honest.

  2. le0pard13 · January 20, 2015

    Agreed. I think this pales next to his “Letter From Iwo Jima” film.

    • Three Rows Back · January 20, 2015

      I originally mentioned Letters… in my review (it’s his last war movie after all) but chopped it out. I still think he’s got another cracker in him.

  3. Writer Loves Movies · January 20, 2015

    Great review. I agree the exploration of Kyle’s background feels much to brief and heavy handed which I felt let the character and Cooper down. Also Eastwood raises some interesting ideas from a sniper’s perspective – such as what might it be like to wait for hours in anticipation of a kill – but rushes past them, leaving them more to our own imagination than really digging deep in the film itself. I feel that’s a shame.

    • Three Rows Back · January 20, 2015

      Thank you my friend. Bits and pieces of this movie are great and remind you of why Eastwood is Eastwood, but as you say too much is rushed or brushed over.

  4. Cindy Bruchman · January 20, 2015

    Nice review. Moments that deliver, but nothing we haven’t already seen.

  5. Stu · January 20, 2015

    Nice review Mark. I haven’t read many for this yet as I’m going to see it later this week or next weekend, but I’ve never been completely sold on it and the fact you say it’s conventional reinforces my ambivalence (for now, anyway). I find Clint’s films completely hit-and-miss. Some I find so slow that I can’t help but feel bored, while others seem to suit that pace. I enjoyed Mystic River, Gran Torino and Letters From Iwo Jima from the past decade or so, but still this’ll be the first film of his I’ve watched in a while…maybe since Invictus. Impressively prolific considering his age.

    • Three Rows Back · January 20, 2015

      It’s definitely worth a visit to the cinema, but don’t expect anything too mind blowing. He’s still a force to be reckoned with when he really sets his mind to it.

  6. vinnieh · January 20, 2015

    Nice review, this really has been a movie that has divided a lot of people.

  7. ruth · January 20, 2015

    Hi Mark! I’m not sure I’m even interested in seeing this. I gave my press screening to my pal Ted who gave me his review. Sounds like he wasn’t impressed w/ this one either. It was just ok but not great. It’s nuts though how it managed to break all kinds of box office records. I suppose Americans love movies w/ tons of guns [shrug]

    • Three Rows Back · January 20, 2015

      And also got a Best Picture Oscar nod to boot! As Ted says, ok, occasionally really good, but otherwise fine. Nothing more.

  8. Tom · January 21, 2015

    Very interesting tidbit about Spielberg’s intent to bolster the psychological factor by exploring (or maybe creating) a ‘relationship’ of sorts between the two extreme sharpshooters on either side. That would have, in effect, contributed more to what was already good in Sniper, but that wouldn’t have hurt it at all. I was more interested in seeing the damage done back Stateside. It was certainly hinted at but before we knew it we were hastily heading back over seas to go fight again. It just got really disorienting and quite honestly tedious after a time.

    Great review buddy. We are pretty much eye-to-eye on Eastwood’s latest.

    • Three Rows Back · January 24, 2015

      Absolutely. Eastwood seems more interested in the action and the thrill of the kill than the impact it has on Kyle back home. Apart from the scene where Kyle is sat in front of the blank TV set with the sound of warfare pounding in his ears, there is little there to explore the man’s war-impacted psyche. Cheers mate.

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  10. Mark Walker · January 24, 2015

    I’m really not too sure if I want to see this or not. I’m not keen the American propaganda type films were they glorify their actions in countries that have no place in. Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker were pieces of shit for the same reason!

    • Three Rows Back · January 24, 2015

      You’re not missing much if you don’t see it to be honest. Have to disagree with you re: Zero Dark Thirty. I loved the film and found it a very pessimistic take on US foreign policy. That’s my take though!

      • polarbears16 · January 26, 2015

        Agreed. Zero Dark Thirty and Hurt Locker are very different movies than Sniper, and they are both better than this one in every single way.

  11. Lights Camera Reaction · February 6, 2015

    Nice review! I did like this, but there was something so sour about how the whole story was presented. Do you know what I mean?
    Still, I did like it and Cooper was very good. Miller did the best with what she was given too.

    • Three Rows Back · February 8, 2015

      Miller didn’t get a lot to work with did she apart from the worried looking wife. I know what you mean about it being sour. The more I’ve thought about the film the more crazy that final pre-closing credits scene is with a seemingly recuperated Kyle (the film doesn’t bother to explain how that happened) pretending to be a sheriff around his wife and kids, holding a loaded weapon! Bizarre.

  12. The Dippylomat, Esq. · February 12, 2015

    Right-o, I am going to take this one ‘to the bridge’. The film is just a projectile gush or puerile alpha-male nonsense. In my opinion Eastwood has never done anything to warrant the title of ‘Hollywood Legend’, bar a few Pale Rider/Josey Wales moments which, in all honesty, required a City & Guilds ‘Pass’ in acting to achieve. I am sure the cultured intelligentsia only look for meaning in his films to justify the err of ever giving him any credibility in the first place. Am I the only one that sees his over-zealous patriotism is just a front for his ‘generational’ racism?

    The film is directed like it is a Sixth Form project: so this happened, and then this happened, and, and, and then this happened…oh wait, maybe this will help…. *insert flashback*

    It is fairly obvious that while we look for meaning in this film, the truth is that it is just a brain-dead cock-fest loved by the alpha moron. I am sure our mutual crush Adam Curtis would identify the dumbing down of the conflict to ‘good cop/ bad cop storyline – still, at least the knucklehead audience will be able to grasp that concept.

    • Three Rows Back · February 12, 2015

      It speaks volumes that it’s become Eastwood’s biggest box office hit, especially in the US where scores of U-S-A! rednecks watch the film to see foreigners with beards getting shot in the head by another redneck. What’s stuck with me since watching the film is its lazy conclusion that doesn’t bother to address how Kyle progressed from a guy staring at a blank TV hearing war noises to the soft focus coda of him swaning about his house holding a *loaded* weapon and pointing it jokily at his wife and kids (a frankly bizarre and uncomfortable moment). Don’t be surprised to see footage of American Sniper showing up in Curtis’ next documentary.

  13. The Dippylomat, Esq. · February 12, 2015

    When are you going to review The Interview – I’ve got a few choice words to say about that too!

    • Three Rows Back · February 12, 2015

      Have seen it but wasn’t planning on reviewing it. I’m struggling to find the time to review more than one film a week at the moment. What are your thoughts? I’ll be honest, I did laugh a number of times in spite of myself.

  14. Victor De Leon · February 19, 2015

    Haven’t seen this on eye but it seems to have many split down the middle. I for one am a big Eastwood fan and will most definitely see this. Very thought out review. Good job. I am curious to see where my opinion falls. Thanks!

    • Three Rows Back · February 19, 2015

      Thanks Vic; I’m intrigued by your opinion too. I’m also a big Eastwood fan; he’s done some truly excellent pictures. This isn’t one of his best, but it’s certainly generated plenty of conversation!

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