AMERICAN SNIPER Review: Making the Hallowed Hollow
Critiquing a film based on an actual person always brings with it the risk that the critique will be misinterpreted (or, in some cases, misrepresented) as a critique of the person. When the story on which the film is based brings with it its own controversy, the risk can increase. Wrap the story in an American flag and attach to it debates on everything from war to gun control, and writing a review can be like … well, like walking through a mine field.
I mention this to make clear I am aware of these risks, and I am only interested in reviewing any film based on its merits as a film, not as an examination of the politics, actions, or final fate of the subject on which the film the is based, nor the direct or peripheral events in that subject’s life.
In this instance, that subject is Chris Kyle and the film about him is Clint Eastwood‘s American Sniper, based on Kyle’s book, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History. The film recounts key moments in Kyle’s childhood, what motivated him to join the military at age 30, and how his service affected him and his family life. It also showcases moments of his four tours of duty in Iraq and many of his confirmed 160 kills.
As the primary character in the story that is American Sniper, Chris Kyle is painted by Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall as straight out of Central Casting. He was Texas born and raised by a father (mom is little more than the woman at the dinner table) who was firm but fair and knew his way with a belt, and who instilled in his sons a love of god and a taste for killing by way of hunting deer. As an adult, Kyle is a strapping, aw-shucks kind of guy who aspires to be a rodeo cowboy, with a willingness to resolve conflict with violence (although not a violent man, per se). He is motivated to enlist in the SEALs after seeing the aftermath of pre-9/11 bombings of overseas US embassies. Nothing deeper than that is established.
Once Kyle is “in country,” the film becomes a monotonous military procedural. American convoys slow-roll Iraqi villages, buildings are checked and cleared, and Kyle snipes a few threats. Sometimes Iraqis are interrogated for information (although nothing remotely as chilling as found in Kathryn Bigelow‘s Zero Dark Thirty), and sometimes there is combat. Sniper, rinse, repeat. With the exception of a couple truly gripping scenes, Eastwood fails to create any sustained tension in his action sequences; they are repetitive to a fault and chaotic for the sake of chaos.
There is also something of a cat-and-mouse game between Kyle and Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), an elite Iraqi sniper who is presented as something of a foil for Kyle (and who actually appears to be better at killing than Kyle), but who is less Moriarty and more Boogeyman; even that becomes rote and repetitious. Eastwood also relies too heavily on the action movie equivalent of the “jump scare” found in horror movies – those moments when SEALs are depicted as being suddenly sniped by Mustafa. It’s jarring, but without sustained tension, it becomes a cheap scare that is quickly erased by chaos.
The four tours’ worth of action Kyle sees is interspersed with scenes of Kyle at home with, or in country and on the phone speaking to, his wife Taya (Sienna Miller). Taya is the hard-to-get gal Kyle met in a bar and charmed to the aisle, combat and all. Despite the significant impact Kyle’s constant returns to duty have on Taya and their (ever-increasing number of) children, she is grossly underdeveloped, serving only as a reminder that, oh yeah, Kyle has a life beyond war. Her scenes are threadbare and her dialogue is clunky, and Miller isn’t a skilled enough actress to make anything out of what little is there.
Worst of all, though, is Eastwood’s approach to Kyle’s psyche: it’s an afterthought – padding, really, to fill those quieter moments when Kyle wasn’t staring through a scope. If this film were merely one about military tactics and the men who execute them, something deeper might no be required. This isn’t that. Eastwood and Hall reference deeper issues with Kyle but those issues are never addressed. He shows signs of PTSD, but they are inserted merely as reminders that, oh yeah, vets come home and suffer from PTSD. It’s little more than moviemaking lip service that not only does wrong by the film, it does wrong by Kyle, as it turns him into less of an American hero and more of a video game character. How he worked through his issues – with his wife and kids and other family – is ignored.
American Sniper is supposed to be a film about “The Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. History,” but once the closing credits rolled (without a score, which is unsettling), I left the theater with knowing only of the things The Legend had done, not of the man Chris Kyle was.