It’s hard to evaluate “American Sniper” on its merits alone, without considering its subject, the late Chris Kyle. The sharpshooter killed something like 255 people in Iraq, a stupefying total for a single lifetime, even if you accept only the confirmed number of 160. That’s a hell of a lot of humans to perforate across four tours, and it raises plenty of questions about who could accomplish such a grisly feat.
What we get, with Clint Eastwood directing an adaptation of Kyle’s autobiography, is a view into the events and the mind of a trigger-squeezing maestro. It’s gripping, gritty and tense. What is isn’t, in any meaningful way, is surprising. If anything, this is a too-reverent, too-pat depiction of a soldier who became something of a folk hero. He lived an exceptional life, but this is not a particularly exceptional film.
Part of the deficiency may stem from Kyle’s version of his own story — being the sort of person whose job it is to execute people at the end of a rifle scope, self-reflection might not have been his strongest suit. But if you were going to check off boxes in the list of what, say, a German or Argentine or Russian or an Egyptian might assume about American military hagiography, it would start with something along Kyle’s thumbnail bio.
Born in west Texas; scenes of hunting and church as a kid; sticking up for his kid brother on the playground; unfulfilling stint as a rodeo cowboy… then he finds the Navy Seals and a wife just in time for 9/11 to dragoon him into the Middle East. Kyle is not a perfect man but he is a righteous man, family man, whose only stated regrets about shooting people is that he couldn’t save all his friends. Usually sticking the word “American” in front of a title is a shade grandiose, but Kyle really feels like an everyman who became known among his comrades simply as “The Legend.”
Bradley Cooper’s up for the Oscar for his portrayal of Kyle, and he’s quite fine in the role. He brings a long stare and a paunchy lower lip that looks like it’s concealing a plug of dip. The Oscar-nominated script, adapted by Jeff Hall, isn’t much given to soliloquy, to say the least — if Cooper gets to say four consecutive sentences anywhere in the movie, it didn’t happen often, and those tended to be short-burst sentences. Cooper won’t get to haunt you, because the plot feels skimpy, rushed. Even at 132 minutes, it might be 20 minutes too lean. As the war grinds Kyle down, we finally see his façade crack in the final act, and Cooper’s portrayal of Kyle’s keyed-up snap judgments to shoot or not carry a frightening weight.
The scenes of Kyle’s life in Texas are less steady. The dialogue still has to pull too hard to feel quite natural, and aside from Kyle’s grim ending — treated here with admirable restraint — none of it feels particularly new. Sienna Miller ably plays Kyle’s wife but insofar as every scene focuses on Kyle, she’s primarily support for childrearing and to clock in to tell him (and the audience) that the war is changing him. So everyone watch for that transformation.
On balance “American Sniper” is more subtle than that, and crafted well enough. There’s just a sense of having been here before. It plays like a real-life “Hurt Locker” as much as anything. That surprise low-budget flick roared to the Best Picture Oscar in 2010, becoming the lowest-earning movie ever to do so. “American Sniper” cost four times as much to make, and in its first weekend earned six times what “Hurt Locker” did in total. Perhaps Kyle’s celebrity, Eastwood’s brand and the Oscar buzz propelled “American Sniper,” but I suspect at least it’s doing gangbusters because it’s how America wants to see its soldiers right now, less through messy geopolitics, more through individual sacrifice and righteousness, with a splash of martyrdom. It’s not a bad movie. But it’s far from as captivating as you’d expect, given its decoration.