Sunday, 25 January 2015

American Sniper (2015) - Movie Review

I always feel good when I end up reviewing a film that involves a certain degree of controversy; it almost guarantees that I’ll piss someone off. Okay, that might be a little too cynical (even for me) but weighing in on films like this is still interesting in seeing how people will end up reacting. However, this is different to when I went after God’s Not Dead and for a couple of reasons. For one, I don’t have as strong a stance on the subject matter in question so I am far less likely to get as heated when talking about it, so hopefully I won’t be going on any massive rants here like I did in that review. That might end up making this less entertaining to read, but it’s not like that’s stopped me any other time I’ve written something on here.

The plot: Out of a need to protect his country and his fellow man, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) enlists in the Navy SEALS as a sniper. Over four tours of military service, Chris creates a name for himself as a lethal sharpshooter and gains the respect of his fellow soldiers. However, the things he must do in service to the country that he holds dear begin to take their toll as memories of the lives that were lost in war haunt him.

Patriotism is a bit of an ugly word and it goes full-on Dorian Gray’s portrait when you add war into the mix. With the amount of controversy surrounding this film and its purported glorification of war and furthering of the American jingoist mindset, this could easily turn out to be a tribute to the American military drowned out by loud chants of “ooh-rah!” echoing through the audience’s ears. However, there’s something different going on with the writing on this one. Jason Hall may have flopped in 2013 with Paranoia, but here he shows a more deft hand when it comes to the characterisation of Chris Kyle. Don’t get me wrong, seeing bloody child death more than once in a film puts my stomach on the spin cycle but there is also the aim to show Chris as humanely as possible here to deal with.

Throughout the film, Chris’ actions aren’t shown in an overtly positive way. Sure, his actions are commended by his fellow officers, but said officers are also shown with the kind of desensitisation that is typical of most portrayals of the modern military. Even when he is being congratulated for his kills, Bradley Cooper looks visibly uncomfortable receiving praise for his actions. Hell, the climax of the film centres around Chris’ want for revenge against the sniper that has been killing his fellow men against his commander’s orders. The pot-shots some commentators have made at this movie would be taken more seriously by me if Chris was made into a martyr for his actions, but… he really isn’t. He’s shown here as someone who wants to serve his country and protect people, with his actions taking a considerable toll on himself; he is a patriot and how that in it of itself is interpreted will differ depending one’s political stances. Well, as someone who takes the stance of “just make fun of whoever is in charge because we’re screwed no matter who gets the votes”, this is a more humane look at patriotism than I have seen in recent years; quite an accomplishment from the writer of a thriller about mobile phone companies.

Clint Eastwood is a director with a lot of respect in the industry, and one look at any given frame in this film will give a good reason as to why that is. The man gives the same expert direction that is expected of him at this stage of his career, and what is definitely expected of him by myself after last year’s fantastic effort Jersey Boys, and the film looks great because of it. The entire sandstorm scene is very well executed, ending on a shot that makes for one of the most dramatically resonant moments of the film.

That is by no means a slight on the actors here, as Bradley Cooper does a superb job as Chris Kyle. I was initially skeptical about his performance after hearing his Southern accent, but that quickly became a non-issue considering how well he pulls off the more traumatic character moments in this film. The scene with him and a kid with a rocket launcher is a great bit of tension anchored primarily through Cooper’s performance. The rest of the cast, though, aren’t quite up to the same standard; again, not that they’re bad but rather they’re not as good as Cooper. Sienna Miller as Chris’ wife is good but I get the feeling that the lack of scenes with her and Cooper together in this film hurt the on-screen chemistry a bit. Actually, come to think of it, Sienna Miller is really the only other actor that stands out here; the rest of the supporting cast do an admittedly decent job but none of them make that big an impression upon leaving the film.

There were some other points that felt off as well. While Chris’ characterisation is good and his PTSD is handled okay, I reckon that it could have been handled better. A good example of this is when he is in an auto-shop back home and starts to trigger when he hears a drill in the background (Why this triggers him is one of the film’s more gruesome moments). The direction and acting both do a good job at showing that the sound is definitely affecting him, but it feels a bit too subdued considering the memory in question. I think I was reacting more to the drill sound than he was as I was squirming a bit thinking back on the scene.

However, the biggest problem I had with the film would have to be the epilogue. The use of slide shows featuring real-life pictures of the film’s characters is honestly becoming overused lately but that isn’t the problem I take with this. No, rather it’s the fact that this epilogue kind of justifies all of the glorification talk as this takes a very hard turn into martyrdom that the rest of the film largely avoided. I’m not necessarily talking about what happens but rather its tone doesn’t fit in with the rest of the film. Chris Kyle died during the early days of the film’s development and the ending here feels like a rather tacked-on resolution in response to that.

All in all, while it may not do all that much different in the way of portraying war on film, this is still a really good look into American patriotism and the effects of war, even if it occasionally manages to outdo Fury with its graphic imagery. Clint Eastwood’s masterful direction, Bradley Cooper’s excellent performance and Jason Hall’s layered, if flawed, script, all meld together into a cohesive and quite entertaining whole.

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