Mark Reviews Movies

American Sniper


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Clint Eastwood

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Luke Grimes, Jake McDorman, Kyle Gallner, Sammy Sheik

MPAA Rating: R (for strong and disturbing war violence, and language throughout including some sexual references)

Running Time: 2:12

Release Date: 12/25/14 (limited); 1/16/15 (wide)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | January 15, 2015

There has been some discussion that American Sniper ignores several aspects of Chris Kyle's life, beliefs, and certain stories that he may have made up out of whole cloth. There are also murmurs that the movie doesn't accurately portray the Iraq War. Here, it again must be pointed out that a film is a film, a book is a book, and real life is real life. Truth can come out of fiction, no matter the medium. Director Clint Eastwood's film adaptation of Kyle's autobiography (co-written with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice) does not present Chris Kyle as Chris Kyle, whatever kind of man he was or wasn'tówhatever he may or may not have believed. The Chris Kyle of the film is representative of something beyond a single man in the same way the Iraq War serves as something more far-reaching than a specific conflict.

Stripping Kyle and the Iraq War of certain details, such as their politics and their histories, does not confuse or eliminate the truth. The film's concept of what the truth is may be different than Kyle's or those who support or criticize the war. That doesn't negate it. The truth Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall are portraying is that of a soldier in combat.

The experience is one of split-second decisions that a person must justify to himself in less than a split-second. The ramifications of failing to do that are permanent, but so too are the consequences of making those decisions. Wars are won, but they come at a great price for those who fight them. Even the soldier who survives combat loses something. For Chris (Bradley Cooper), it's the ability to live a life outside of battle.

The film does not say anything revelatory about the subject, but it says its piece with a precise clarity of narrative and an appropriate degree of moral uncertainty. The opening scene, introduced in media res, presents Chris, a sniper with the Navy SEALs, with one of those moments of decision. He is on the roof of a building somewhere in Iraq as a Marine convoy goes down the street below him. A woman and a child exit a building down the way. The woman is carrying something. She passes it to the child. It appears to be a grenade.

Whatever brought these two nameless individuals to this moment is unimportant. In this moment, Chris has two options: Shoot the child or don't.

If he shoots and he's wrong, he'll "fry," as his spotter (Kyle Gallner) puts itóa word choice that implies consequences beyond Chris' job and a possible court-martial. If he doesn't shoot and he's wrong, some or all of the Marines below him will be killed. This is just the first decision in combat that we see Chris make. We don't see them all, but considering the fact that he becomes known as the most lethal sniper in the history of the United States military, we have to assume that we only see small percentage of those moments of instantaneous judgment.

Chris repeatedly says that he can live with each kill he makes. That might be true for him on a level of self-justification, but everything apart from his words suggests otherwise. Hall's screenplay segues from the introductory scene to show a young Chris (Cole Konis) learning about the rightness and righteousness of fighting for the helpless from his father (Ben Reed). It's no accident, this juxtaposition of a lesson in morality immediately following a scenario where the lines of right and wrong are blurred beyond recognition. For all of Chris' talk of good against evil, Hall and Eastwood certainly don't see these situations in such simplistic terms.

The film quickly dispenses with the biographical elements. He joins the Navy, meets and later marries Taya (Sienna Miller), and, after the attacks on September 11, 2001, goes through and passes the brutal SEAL training.

After this, though, Chris becomes a soldier in the film's viewpointónothing more and nothing less. There are long periods of waiting followed by spontaneous eruptions of violence. Eastwood stages the latter sequences with confidence and precision, but they stand out for their focus on the constant evaluation and re-evaluation of circumstances. An option that could be made at one moment becomes an error or an impossibility in the next. There is a small window of opportunity to save a child from a cruel al-Qaeda leader, and in retrospect, it may have been so miniscule as to be rendered nonexistent. Is a nearly impossible shot to stop an enemy sniper (Sammy Sheik) who has been posting videos of his kills online worth the risk of giving away U.S. force's position?

The rightness of his choices may or may not be clear in Chris' mind, but either way, the process of making them takes its toll on him. The film is as much about the lasting effects of combat on the soldier as it is on the battles themselves. In scenes at home, Chris breaks to various degrees, and Cooper is especially effective in communicating the extent of Chris' psychological turmoil within the confines of a character who refuses to put it into words. The effect on his marriage is undeniable, and Miller is also very good here, as confusion about what Chris is going through turns to disbelief and, eventually, frustration.

Hall establishes and develops this through line of undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder with consideration, so it's baffling that the film does not follow through to the next logical step. There's an entire final act absent from American Sniper, which Hall's screenplay summarizes in an ending that is so clunky in explaining how Chris copes with life after battle that it destroys whatever emotional effect this last moment could have had. It's an unfortunate final note of hollowness to a film that until then seems to know better.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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