Friday, January 16, 2015

In Theaters: AMERICAN SNIPER (2014)

(US - 2014)

Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Jason Hart. Cast: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Luke Grimes, Sammy Sheik, Cory Hardrict, Sam Jaeger, Kyle Gallner, Keir O'Donnell, Jake McDorman, Mido Hamada, Reynaldo Gallegos, Kevin Lacz, Ayman Samman, Ben Reed, Marnette Patterson. (R, 132 mins)

Clint Eastwood stops just short of crafting AMERICAN SNIPER as a hagiography of Iraq War hero Chris Kyle, whose 160 confirmed kills have him credited as the most lethal sniper in US military history. Kyle was killed at the age of 38 at a shooting range in 2013 by a fellow vet suffering from PTSD, but since the publication of his memoir in 2012 up to the release of the film, questions have lingered. Questions that Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall (PARANOIA) sidestep completely: Kyle's penchant for boasting and braggadocio (he claims to have killed 255 in Iraq instead of 160); his alleged throwdown with someone he calls "Scruff-Face," claiming they were insulting Navy SEALs--Kyle later revealed this person to be Jesse Ventura, who eventually sued Kyle's estate and won, resulting in that chapter being removed from subsequent printings of the book; his claim that he and a buddy drove to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and killed 30 looters; or that he killed two men who were trying to steal his truck. There's no evidence to support these claims, and may just be shit-talk by a war-shattered man who, regardless of how tall his tales may have been, served his country and died trying to help a brother whose pain he knew all too well.

In tap-dancing around Kyle's life and avoiding the risk of offending his family in any way (Kyle's father claims to have looked Eastwood in the eye and told him he'd "unleash hell" on him if the movie disrespected his son), Eastwood and Hall simply present him as a humble, quietly mumbling, aw-shucks cowboy type, very well-played by a monstrously bulked-up Bradley Cooper. Cooper delivers a largely internalized performance, often looking like he'd rather crawl into a shell and doing his best to bury the horrors of war and the things he's seen and done--his first kill is a small child about to hurl a grenade at approaching Marines. Through four tours over a decade, he follows the standard character arc of a career soldier who's more at home in war than in the quiet and tranquil homefront. While the combat sequences have a raw, visceral intensity--particularly one scene involving an al-Zarqawi subordinate known as The Butcher (Mido Hamada), and his power-drill torture of a young boy that Eastwood and his usual editor Joel Cox handle with nail-biting, precise immediacy--the film too rigidly follows a template. It's great to see Eastwood, a notoriously fast director whose films have gotten downright sloppy in recent years, dig in and really make these sequences work. But what's here really isn't all that different from THE HURT LOCKER, swapping out an EOD bomb-disposal sergeant for a SEAL sniper, and other than a climactic firefight in a sandstorm, Eastwood often boils the Iraq War down to a cat-and-mouse game between Kyle, nicknamed "Legend" and with a $180,000 bounty on his head by terrorist insurgents, and feared al-Qaeda sniper Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), a character and subplot invented for the film.

Dramatic license is a given, and like the discrepancies between the real Captain Phillips and his portrayal in CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, it's possible to simply accept the film on its own terms. But while AMERICAN SNIPER works best in battle, its weakest sections are when Kyle is back home between tours. Sienna Miller is saddled with a stock "military wife" role as Taya Kyle, given little to do other than cry, whether she's calling Chris and listening in horror when he drops the phone in the middle of a firefight, or whether he's at home staring into space and she exclaims--wait for it--"Even when you're here...you're not here!" Miller does what she can with an underwritten role, and she's terrific in their early scenes prior to their marriage when she's feisty and independent. But once she becomes Mrs. Kyle, Taya is just worried, pregnant, or worried and pregnant. Taya Kyle is obviously a strong and intelligent woman, but AMERICAN SNIPER keeps her superficial and uncomplicated. There's a complex film to be made about the many sides of Chris Kyle and there are inconsistencies that need to be addressed, but nobody seemed up to it, almost as if even the appearance of criticizing or questioning him in any way would've diminished his accomplishments and his legacy.

Chris Kyle (1974-2013)
Eastwood once made challenging films weren't afraid to show that there were two sides to every man, whether it's the devoted father and good cop who spends his off-hours indulging in kinky, S&M sex with prostitutes the sleaziest areas of New Orleans in TIGHTROPE, or the bloodthirsty killer-turned-family man forced to once again unleash that inner beast in UNFORGIVEN. He's even explored this idea in a combat setting with LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA, which managed to effectively show the human, sympathetic side of Japanese soldiers in WWII. Historically, he's confronted serious moral issues in ways that are anything but black or white (think of the quandary presented to his fatherly trainer character in MILLION DOLLAR BABY or the choice made by his embittered retiree in GRAN TORINO), but with this and 2014's earlier JERSEY BOYS, he's made two consecutive biopics that seem too safe, too corner-cutting, and too eager to treat their subjects with kid gloves. At least AMERICAN SNIPER can get by on its combat intensity and a strong performance by Cooper--whereas JERSEY BOYS was indicative of Eastwood at his least-engaged--but the transparency of its Oscar-baiting couldn't be any more obvious if Harvey Weinstein was producing it. Eastwood didn't become the legend he is by being conventional, mainstream, and abiding by the rules, and regardless of how well-made it is on a technical level, AMERICAN SNIPER is something that requires a more substantive approach than its maker is interested in taking at this point in his career.

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