American Sniper Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Luke Grimes. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Rated R. Opens Friday.
American Sniper ends by showing real news footage of the massive memorials for Navy SEAL Chris Kyle that followed his death in 2013, when he was murdered at a shooting range by a fellow military veteran. Like 2013’s Lone Survivor, which similarly closed with tearjerking footage related to dead servicemen, American Sniper is a simplistic, pandering tribute to the American military and people who give themselves over to it blindly, aimed at an audience that prizes patriotism over drama and isn’t interested in complexity when telling the stories of so-called American heroes.
Lone Survivor at least had some exciting action sequences, but Sniper doesn’t even get that right in its drawn-out but superficial story of Kyle’s life, based on his own memoir. Bradley Cooper bulked up and put on a mostly credible Texas accent to play Kyle, and his performance is the movie’s strongest element. But Jason Hall’s script doesn’t give Cooper much to work with, and the supporting characters are even flimsier. Clint Eastwood directs with his usual workmanlike efficiency, which doesn’t do much to elevate the material. Even the action sequences, especially a climactic battle that takes place during a sandstorm, are unremarkable, with little suspense. Kyle served four tours of duties in Iraq over the course of a decade, but they all end up blurring together, and his fellow soldiers are almost completely interchangeable, so that when one is injured or killed, there’s no emotional impact.
Kyle’s wife Taya (Sienna Miller) is equally one-dimensional, relegated to nagging phone calls for most of the movie. Kyle’s claim to fame is that he has more confirmed kills (160, officially) than any other sniper in American history, and the movie’s tensest and most complex moments involve his brief crises of conscience when he has women and children in his sights. But the movie ultimately comes down on the side of Kyle’s black-and-white point of view, which carries him from Iraq back home to Texas. Once he’s home, his battlefield intensity makes it difficult for him to readjust, and the movie finally seems like it might be adding some additional facets to Kyle’s character. Then Kyle’s PTSD is essentially cured within a single scene, as he channels all his problems into helping wounded veterans who came home with more obvious battle scars.
That effort is admirable, as is honoring the sacrifices made by members of the American military. Kyle himself has been a bit of a divisive figure, but the movie leaves out the more dubious claims he made in his book, instead focusing on a streamlined, crowd-pleasing story that celebrates Kyle’s life while failing to offer any insight about it.