If there’s one thing that makes American Sniper a must see theatrical experience, it is the picture’s outstanding sound. Yes, I’m putting sound effects over Bradley Cooper’s acting. This is because so much of the tension is derived from it. Every click of the sniper rifle’s lens focus, each moment of deafening silence before the gun goes off, the explosive sound of the bullet being fired from the chamber, the piercing through an enemy’s skull, the clank of the casing falling to the floor, and the cocking of the gun to load another bullet is heard in terrifying clarity and immersive surround sound. It puts you right into the driver’s seat as if you yourself were pulling that trigger. This is how intense and gripping the film’s sniper sequences are, and it’s all due to the incredible sound design and mixing.
American Sniper is the second film directed by Clint Eastwood this year after Jersey Boys. Eastwood has made as many great films as he has made forgettable ones, so it is tough to predict how each new release of his will fare. Thankfully, American Sniper reflects a disciplined and sure-handed director behind the camera. It’s not perfect, but it’s always engaging.
Bradley Cooper plays Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL sniper whose four tours in Iraq made him the deadliest sniper in US history, with 160 confirmed kills and countless American lives saved. Starting off as a patriotic rodeo bull rider, Chris decides to enlist in the army believing he will be able to make a difference. As he pulls through the grueling training, his pinpoint accuracy with a rifle earns him the sniper position. The film then aims to show us a fully well rounded portrait of this man spanning over twelve years of his life. We see the horror he encounters at war in the Middle East, and we see how he continually tries to readjust to family life when he is back home in America. His wife Taya played very astutely by actress Sienna Miller is not portrayed as the stereotypical war veteran’s wife, who pleads and complains that her husband is never around. She is fully aware of the dangers Chris faces, and not only supports his decisions to re-enlist three times she willingly raises their two children without his help. Even as Chris struggles to reintegrate into everyday American life, she stands firmly by his side.
Where American Sniper works best is in the Iraq war scenes. Eastwood’s camera placement puts you right in the middle of the battle. He’s very careful to conceal the enemy’s whereabouts from the audience, just as the soldiers can’t tell where the enemy will approach from. As the soldiers fight to anticipate the enemy’s attack pattern, eliminating as many targets as they can before they themselves get wounded, Chris Kyle sits atop a nearby roof and waits for that perfect shot. When Chris is in position looking for targets, Eastwood cuts to the scope shots that show exactly who he is looking at and whether or not this person will unknowingly run into his crosshairs. These scenes force you to identify with both Chris as well as his target. Chris has merely seconds to pull the trigger or risk this target killing dozens of people. You hear the sound, the shaking of the scope, and that person in the crosshairs dropping dead as blood splatters over the wall. If it’s hard for you to watch, imagine being Chris Kyle and knowing you just killed someone. And then to do that over and over and over again, I can’t fathom the psychological torment that does to a person.
These action-driven scenes often shift back to Chris being home with his family as he tries to live outside the battlefield. Here is where the film tends to feel disjointed and awkward, which is disappointing because Eastwood usually excels with dramatic sequences. The sequences in the United States are well acted, but they’re nevertheless executed rather poorly with clunky dialogue, unintentionally funny moments, or a prop baby that too often detracts and deflates the emotional intensity of some scenes. You heard that right; Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller were given a prop baby to handle and the way they handle it is a dead giveaway. I missed a huge moment because my friends and I could not stop laughing at how ridiculous it was. And it becomes a bigger problem even more so because the film tends to go back and forth between a film about the horrors of war and a more serious character study. It tries to be both at the same time and frequently stumbles as a result.
What also really keeps the film, and the scenes that don’t work, consistently watchable is Bradley Cooper’s mesmerizing performance. This is Bradley Cooper as you’ve never seen him before. He completely disappears into his character as he is unrecognizable from the handsome charming goofball he played in The Hangover. Just look at his facial expressions when behind a sniper scope. You can actually tell what the character is thinking about just by looking at Bradley Cooper’s face. The scenes with Chris Kyle back home have Cooper covering a full range of emotions, from anger, torment, sadness, joy, and laughter. He’s a dedicated family man and a mentally unstable war veteran. If you feel nothing else in the film works, Bradley Cooper completely embodies the character of Chris Kyle, and he does it without any makeup or prosthetic noses.
I can’t agree with American Sniper’s best picture nomination. It’s not that good of a film. But the war scenes alone are worth watching it in theatres. Imagine the intensity of the final twenty minutes of Zero Dark Thirty occurring each time we are with Chris Kyle and his Navy SEAL comrades. Eastwood even makes an effort for you to sympathize with an enemy sniper, constantly framing this enemy around family, friends, and pictures of his past life. This is a very good film that communicates, no matter how flawed its execution, that those who survived their ordeal fighting for their country will always be physically and emotionally haunted by the very act of taking another human life, even if it was to save their own. Chris Kyle always stands proud of his actions, defending them as protecting America. But as he kills more and more men, women, and children in the name of fighting terrorists, you can tell that he himself is questioning his own beliefs.
DIRECTOR: Clint Eastwood / WRITER: Jason Hall / STARRING: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller / YEAR: 2015 / GENRE: War / COUNTRY: USA / RUNNING TIME: 132 minutes