Action Adaptation

Film Review: American Sniper

January 16, 2015Ben MK

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It's not your imagination — the multiplexes have been flooded with a wave of biopics recently. Now, hot on the heels of films like Big Eyes and The Imitation Game comes the latest from director Clint Eastwood: a movie about Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in U.S. history. Like last year's Lone Survivor, American Sniper is a gripping account of bravery and heroism on the battlefield. But it also paints a haunting portrait of a man battling the psychological effects of war. And it has its star, Bradley Cooper, delivering the most transfixing performance of his career.


Based on Kyle's 2011 memoir, which he co-authored with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice, American Sniper commences with Kyle's first tour of duty in Iraq, where he's been tasked with protecting the lives of the Marines on the ground. In this first, tense scene of the film, Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall put moviegoers squarely in Kyle's boots, as he's forced to make a split-second decision about whether to shoot a mother and her young son who appear to be carrying a grenade intended for the U.S. troops.

Then, as the crucial moment nears, the movie's narrative takes an abrupt detour. Select moments from Kyle's Christian upbringing flash on the screen, including a scene in which he and his younger brother receive a stern lecture from their father, who tells them that "there are three kinds of people in the world: sheep, wolves and sheepdogs" and that "in this family, we don't raise any sheep."

It's evident that the words resonate profoundly with Kyle, for we later observe him staring aghast at a television news broadcast showing the chaotic aftermath of an anti-American terrorist attack and deciding right then and there that it's his patriotic duty to enlist and protect his country.

If there are any failings about the film, they can largely be traced to its first act. Scenes that are meant to flesh out Kyle's backstory instead end up coming across as heavy-handed and overwrought with masculine clichés. And viewers may find it hard to suppress a chuckle or two at moments such as one in which a stoic Cooper marches silently towards the camera — clad in a white cowboy hat (what else) — and squints into the sunlight as he stares intently off-screen.

Fortunately, the rest of the movie isn't unintentionally farcical in the least. For after enduring the torturous rite of passage that is Navy SEALs training, then meeting, wooing and marrying Taya (an underused Sienna Miller), with whom he eventually fathers two children, Kyle is deployed to the Middle East. It's at this point that the movie really begins to earn its stripes, as Eastwood's depictions of the savagery of war are uncompromising and hard-hitting.

More importantly, it's from this point onward that we see the bulked-up and already physically convincing Cooper really emotionally disappear into his role as Kyle, whose sharpshooting prowess quickly earns him the nickname "Legend" among his fellow soldiers.

The remainder of the narrative alternates between Kyle's time spent serving overseas and his time at home stateside, mirroring the duality of the man himself. We see him returning to Iraq for three more tours, each time a little more seasoned, a little more grizzled and with a fresh mission to tackle, as he takes on a ruthless killer codenamed "The Butcher" (Mido Hamada) and goes toe-to-toe with an enemy assassin known as "Mustafa" (Sammy Sheik). In between deployments, however, Kyle's personal life is less of a success, as he finds himself contending with the challenge of just trying to live a normal life — something that proves exceedingly difficult to do when he's haunted by his kills on the battlefield.

The Bottom Line For those who may not be familiar with the story of Chris Kyle, the movie's final scenes are all the more heartbreaking and gut-wrenching, as it builds on Cooper's affecting portrayal of a man striving to overcome PTSD, who struggles on a daily basis with reconciling his duty with his morals. Forget about the controversy surrounding who Kyle was in real life, or the debate on whether the film may be too patriotic for its own good; this is what the film is truly about — it's a story about having the courage to go to the darkest depths of our own humanity, and then finding the strength to claw our way back into the light.  Ben Mk

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