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Front Page - Friday, January 23, 2015

American Sniper misses its target

The Critic's Corner

David Laprad

As the credits rolled at the end of “American Sniper,” no one in the packed theater in which I was sitting budged. Director Clint Eastwood used that portion of the film to show pictures of the real Chris Kyle and video of his funeral. I’m sure we were all feeling the same thing: to get up and leave would be disrespectful of the man who saved the lives of many American soldiers.

Kyle deserves that respect. He also deserves a better movie, as painful as that is to write.

The problem with the film lies not with actor Bradley Cooper, who physically transformed himself to play Kyle, a United States Navy Seal who became the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history during four tours of duty in the Iraq War. Cooper also took his acting to a new level. He’s always been a solid performer, but here, he’s exceptional. Maybe it was Kyle’s story, maybe it was working with the legendary Eastwood, or maybe he realized this is the role that will define his legacy as an actor, but he pulled together a performance for the ages for “American Sniper.”

The key moment in his performance comes after Kyle returns to the U.S. after a tour in Iraq but doesn’t tell his family. Instead, he sits at a bar and drinks. When he calls his wife and she’s stunned to learn he’s back, he fights to hold back his emotions and almost succeeds. In a moment of choked tears, you can see and hear what the war and all of the death has done to Kyle.

If a lesser actor had won the role, or if Cooper hadn’t delivered a great performance, “American Sniper” would have failed as a movie. Because it is only through Cooper that we gain any insight into Kyle. The script itself, based on Kyle’s biography, is shallow.

We learn little of why Kyle left his family again and again to return to the war. The few lines that deal with this crucial component of his life almost feel like pat explanations: Essentially, Kyle wanted to save American lives – something he did very well. But the question of why Kyle did what he did lingers throughout the film.

This is especially true of the final act, which is surprisingly abrupt and seems almost like a Cliff Notes version of what actually happened. Plus, I was expecting something more emotional. Perhaps Eastwood, extraordinary filmmaker that he is, is uncomfortable with or unskilled at bringing those emotions to the surface of a movie. Had Stephen Spielberg, who considered directing the film, done so, he would have knocked that aspect of the movie out of the ballpark.

One thing Eastwood did very well was stage several gripping action scenes. Through intelligent shot construction and editing, Eastwood patiently established the geography of each scene, built suspense, and provided an emotional release. While watching a sequence in which Kyle has to decide whether or not to shoot a young boy who’s picked up an RPG and is aiming it at American soldiers, I really got a sense of the struggle Kyle must have experienced on the battlefield. Eastwood is just as effective on the domestic front, where he conveys the deteriorating relationship between Kyle and his wife.

Unfortunately, screenwriter Jason Hall undercuts both Cooper and Eastwood with some odd story choices, the most damning of which was the very Hollywood decision to pit Kyle against a skilled Iraqi sniper. I don’t know if the two men really had a showdown amongst the rubble, but it comes across as silly in the movie. I liked Hall’s dialogue – it delivers what each scene needs, whether its humor, emotion, or a lack of emotion – but he made some poor decisions when it came to the larger script.

“American Sniper” was a hard film to review. It contains brilliant individual parts, but these parts are contained within an imperfect whole. While I gained an appreciation for what our men and women in uniform have faced, and are still facing, in the Middle East, I wanted to feel a stronger connection to the material.

Two and a half stars out of four. Rated R for strong and disturbing war violence, and language throughout including some sexual references. David Laprad is the assistant editor of the Hamilton County Herald and an award-winning columnist and photographer. Contact him at dlaprad@hamiltoncountyherald.com.