Disclaimer: I have not read the book.
Director Clint Eastwood is no stranger to studying masculinity (he’s done so in several of his films over the years). Here he takes the story of Chris Kyle, notorious as being the most prolific sniper in U.S. history, and weaves a tale of men, war, and violence. Bradley Cooper plays the role of the sniper himself, bulking up for the role and sliding into Kyle’s cowboy boots impressively. For a biopic Eastwood’s latest is surprisingly light on character and heavy on sweaty-palm combat set pieces.
Luckily Cooper carries the film’s few character moments on his broad shoulders, disappearing into the role with ease and affecting the typical Texas accent, with chewing tobacco to boot. It’s clear American Sniper is trying to conjure up emotional resonance and study its titular character but poor writing and tonal inconsistencies keep it from being anything more than a competent war thriller; a competent war thriller with a lead performance deserving a film with tighter focus.
Eastwood’s direction is taut and competent, with several action beats hitting their mark (although everything here we’ve seen before). As Kyle racks up his kill count his comrades begin labeling him a “legend” but it’s apparent that this red-blooded American is feeling the side effects of his actions. Taya Kyle (a great turn from Sienna Miller in a minimal role) serves as Chris’s tie to his home life, a tie that becomes strained as his obsession and dedication to the war grows.
Ultimately American Sniper’s reach exceeds its grasp. Eastwood’s intentions are admirable, attempting suspenseful thriller, biopic, and observations on violence and war, but he just ends up throwing too many darts that miss their mark. This results in a well-crafted, well-acted, but decidedly clumsy affair. Cooper adds enough real weight to tie the film’s episodic war pieces together but it’s flailing and seemingly confused overall. A scene involving Kyle and his father at the beginning discussing hunting is mimicked after Kyle’s infamous 160 kill streak in Iraq, adding one of the film’s only morally ambiguous moments. Similarly Kyle’s PTSD (which Cooper handles superbly) is brushed over in a matter of minutes and the film ends in a flurry of messiness.
American Sniper is, for all intents and purposes, a solid film (sporting an awful musical score however) but ultimately stands effectively as a remake of The Hurt Locker – only considerably lesser.