I know I’m a few weeks late on this but I had some free time and since it’s been dominating the Box Office, I thought I should really catch American Sniper before it leaves theaters. There’s also a lot of controversy about fanatical patriotism and Islamaphobia (and if this is even close to the real story of Chris Kyle). So there’s a lot to think about.
Bradley Cooper stars as Chris Kyle, a Texan cowboy who enlists into the Navy SEALs at the age of 30 and goes on to become the deadliest sniper in U.S. history, doing four tours overseas. He has a wife (Sienna Miller) and several children, whom he has a hard time connecting with in between his tours. This movie is directed by Clint Eastwood.
With Cooper up for an Academy Award for Best Actor, I had high expectations for him. And after seeing what he could do in movies like Silver Linings Playbook, I was excited. Luckily, he didn’t disappoint. In addition to bulking up massively to look physically more like Chris Kyle, Cooper also put a lot of effort into the smaller subtler things. When he’s back at home in between tours, there are some really interesting moments where he struggles with what he’s seen and done. For my real-life job, I’ve gone through several trainings on working with veterans and what their experience coming home can be like and this portrayal seemed accurate to what I’ve learned about. Just little moments like him being startled by the sound of an electric drill or loud bangs. Cooper sells it completely.
For these moments to work, you need the time overseas to be dramatic. And they absolutely are. Every scene where Kyle is sniping (on what’s called “overwatch”), you’re on the absolute edge of your seat. It smartly builds tension and knows exactly when to pick up the pace. There’s a good balance of slow and steady sniping and then heavy-fire action scenes.
What doesn’t work?
I wouldn’t say that a lot doesn’t work, but I would say there are some missed opportunities.
The villains in the movie are a man named the Butcher and a sniper named Mustafa. They get some chilling moments but they didn’t get much screentime, so when big showdowns happened, it might’ve lacked that punch. The sniper Mustafa got some closure but the Butcher kind of just disappeared. Maybe that’s the curse of this being a true story, that it doesn’t always end in a nice little package.
Kind of related, there is some controversy about the fanaticism promoted in this movie and that it could stir up anti-Islam sentiments. I can kind of see that, as every character in the movie is out to kill our heroes. I wish there had been some more complexity in the Iraqi people that could show that not all of them are terrorists. It’s not so black and white in reality and that is a bit of a missed opportunity.
I also have to bring up the fake baby. There is horrible CGI that tries to make the prop baby look like it’s moving but it is very apparent that these are visual effects. In general actually, the visual effects stand out in most scenes, which is never a good thing.
Bradley Cooper delivers a nuanced performance here, but I don’t think he’s really a contender for Best Actor. Likewise the movie is really suspenseful, but some missed opportunities mean this movie might lack depth that other Best Picture nominees might’ve had. On its own, this is a great movie though, but I can see why some of the controversy about Chris Kyle’s real life are being brought to light. Independent of the controversy, this is a well-made film with a great performance by Cooper.