Reel Matt

This blog started as my movie marathon — watching a movie a day for a whole year — and has continued as a place for me to write reviews about movies, TV, and various other items.

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American Sniper

Film #491

THE PLOT

A Navy S.E.A.L. recounts his military career, which includes more than 150 confirmed kills.

Year 3, Film #41

THE REVIEW: After the screening, there was a Q&A with Sienna Miller (who plays Taya Kyle) and one of her quotes really stuck out. She mentioned how this was a film made for Clint Eastwood to tell and is why Chris Kyle, the person who American Sniper is based on, chose him as his first pick for director. It really stuck out to me because I don’t think this could be any farther from the truth. At the heart of American Sniper is a very deep and touching story about Chris Kyle (portrayed by Bradley Cooper) and all he gave to protect his fellow soldiers and serve his country. But most of this is lost, if not ruined, by Eastwood’s direction. 

My biggest complaint is that it doesn’t feel like a war film. Throughout the movie I kept trying to think about why that was and several ideas surfaced. Probably the biggest one that stood out was the lack of the f-word. It may just be a Hollywood convention and I grossly misunderstand the amount of swearing that goes on in the military, but compared to other war films (Lone Survivor is a great recent example) it feels like a kids movie. Even more suspicious is that this behavior changes about halfway through the film. During Kyle’s first tour (and possibly his second too) the number of fucks is close to zero. Then, Taya drops the f-bomb, then Chris does, and pretty soon everyone is swearing up a storm as it should have been from the beginning. 

The second idea I had for why the film lacked that distinct “war-feel” is a large use of static shots, or rather, a lack of camera movement. Most of the cinematography felt locked off as if they carried a tripod to every location they went. At first the stability in the war zones is quite jarring because it’s way outside today’s conventions which heavily use (sometimes overuse) the shaky-cam. I got to thinking maybe breaking from the norm was an artistic choice and actually a good idea. There’s no doubt it’s an artistic choice (unless it’s just pure laziness), but with one exception it doesn’t really work. The one exception is the shots of Chris Kyle perched on the roofs looking through his scope, sniping the enemy. Sniping is all about remaining calm and controlling your breath (as we learn during Kyle’s training) and keeping a steady, locked-off camera is an interesting and effective choice to enhance this feeling. But for all the reasons that’s a good idea for sniping moments, they’re bad reasons for the rest of the film. 

Locked-off shots to convey a sense of calm when Kyle is in his element only works if it’s contrasted with chaos at all other times. You might point to the moment in the film where you see Chris has extremely high blood pressure when examined back stateside (with the implication that he’s calm — low blood pressue — on the battlefield) and say that continuing this motif to all parts of war is acceptable. If that’s your argument, than that means shots back in the U.S. should possess the chaos that we lack in Iraq. The idea in general is a good one, and I applaud the creativity; there just needs to be contrast somewhere. 

Speaking of contrast, the story itself also felt too flat. American Sniper isn’t just a war film and being thrust into constant gunfights. Arguably the larger and more important part of the film is the turmoil and difficulties that Chris Kyle and his wife Taya have to go through. Chris deals with guilt every time he comes back home because it means he can’t be out saving his fellow soldiers from harm. This leads to tension between him and his wife and some less-than-happy moments when he’s with the family he loves. On top of all this, Chris starts to suffer from PTSD which furthers the tension between him and his wife (because she thinks he’s not paying attention to her) and lots of these issues start to compound and build on each other. 

THE TAKEAWAY: The potential is there, but just ever so slightly out of reach. All the pieces to the puzzle are as clear as I outlined above and if put together correctly could make for a cohesive and well-told story. Chris Kyle saving countless lives and being a Navy SEAL is part of his DNA. Everything he went through, and how he persevered is remarkable. It’s a tale of a hero, a legend, all the more so for reasons I can’t elaborate on here without giving away the end. American Sniper doesn’t do the story justice though. The movie just doesn’t feel right and the balance between home and war could be handled much better. You should definitely look up Chris Kyle and read about his story, and while this film may spark that interest, it leaves much to be desired. 

American Sniper opens in limited release on December 25, 2014 and expands nationwide on January 16, 2015. 

THE RATING: 3 out of 5