As the credits rolled in silence and everyone quietly ushered themselves out of the theater, I felt morally and emotionally perplexed by American Sniper, which is a good thing (I guess?). The film can be arresting and features an all-in performance by Bradley Cooper; it also successfully drives home the absolute, lifelong sacrifice that soldiers lay down for our freedom, regardless of whether they return home physically unscathed. But is American Sniper a film I’m raving about to everyone? Meh.
The movie depicts the true story of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), a rodeo cowboy turned Navy SEAL who did 4 tours in Afghanistan during the 2000’s and became the deadliest sniper in U.S. history, with 160 confirmed kills. Despite the obvious urge, Cooper and director Clint Eastwood do not paint Kyle as a badass; rather, Cooper’s Chris Kyle is an uber-patriotic, Southern gentlemen hero who just wants to save the world from the bad guys. This is ultimately what drives the Navy SEAL to leave his wife (Sienna Miller, who does a lot with very little) and children several times to return to war; or at least that’s what he tells them and more interestingly, himself.
There’s an adrenaline addiction element implicitly laden in American Sniper that was better explored in films like The Hurt Locker, but it remains a compelling subject to see unfold nonetheless. Even still, Jason Hall’s script, adapted from Kyle’s autobiography, seems to write off Kyle’s addiction to war and discomfort in civilization as a simple statement from Kyle in a VA therapists office: “I regret that I wasn’t able to save more people.” Really?! What a frustrating character choice. There are infinitely more powerful ideas to be mined there.The overriding theme of the film, at least for me, still rang true, albeit a bit muddily: even if the deadliest sniper in American history, who laid down his life over and over to preserve the freedom he and we cherish, returns home as a hero with no physical wounds, the psychological ones are forever ingrained. It seemed like Eastwood was in a real hurry to get to this objective, with a large portion of the film’s 132 minutes feeling like we were sprinting from scene to scene and year to year as if to say, “I have to tell you this since it was in the book, but here’s the point I’m trying to make.”
The oddest choice that American Sniper makes in the journey we take with our real-life protagonist is that it just barely tells the whole story. Eastwood elects a happier, somber ending with a simple title card about the end of Kyle’s story instead of making a statement on the hero’s continued brush with pronounced danger and death when the ultimate threat lies where you least expect it. I think about Omar’s character arch on The Wire and how much more it stuck with me; the surprise, the anger, the ultimate uselessness of war in all of its forms. American Sniper is effective, but only in sweeping fashion. Instead of resonating long afterwards, the film’s themes land with a thud that only resonate for as long as you’re in your seat.
American Sniper opens today in Philly area theaters.