** (2 stars)
d – Clint Eastwood
w – Jason Hall (Based on the Book by Chris Kyle, Scott McEwen, James Defelice)
ph – Tom Stern
pd – Charisse Cardenas, James J. Murakami
ed – Joel Cox, Gary Roach
p – Clint Eastwood, Robert Lorenz, Andrew Lazar, Bradley Cooper, Peter Morgan
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Max Charles, Luke Grimes, Kyle Gallner, Sam Jaeger, Jake McDorman, Jonathan Groff
Clint Eastwood’s films are perpetually interesting. They exude a classicism that has divided the film culture into those who see his kind of simplistic lucidity as brave and those who see it as ineptitude. His penchant for shooting the script as written and often in very few takes makes him, and his methods, particularly old-fashioned. He’s certainly more Woody Van Dyke than David Fincher.
I have always called his films as I see them. Some have been hot, some not. But it would be an imperious mistake to assume Mr Eastwood’s simplicity is the lucky fluke of a hack’s disinterest. Clint Eastwood is a serious filmmaker and American Sniper is a serious film.
American Sniper is based on the Memoir by United States Navy SEAL Chris Kyle and ghostwritten by Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice. The film opens with Kyle (Bradley Cooper), whose four tours in Iraq provided him with the status of the deadliest sniper in American military history. He is horizontal on a rooftop, with his rifle and a military convoy moving on the streets below. He views a woman and child behaving dubiously. They begin moving towards a tank. He discovers that the woman is carrying a grenade and is giving it to the child, intending to take out the Americans in a suicide bombing. The choice to pull the trigger is his.
From here, we are taken back to Kyle’s childhood and the film then adopts its linear, uncomplicated manner. The straightforwardness of which Mr Eastwood lets the events of Kyle’s life unfold means one’s reaction to the film itself is as precise to the point of Rorschach. The film has come under fire for jingoism, for lionizing the gun culture, for blind admiration of the military and for being pro-War on Terror. It has also been criticized for portraying a false depiction of the man himself. Former Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin has gone out of her way to praise the film, while Professor Noam Chomsky castigates it.
The silliest scene in the movie comes near the beginning when Kyle is alerted by his girlfriend (later wife, played by Sienna Miller) on the morning of September 11th 2001. As he watches the news footage of the towers falling apart, he is visibly enraged. I don’t think it was in the best interest of Mr Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall to thematically correlate this event with the ensuing Iraq invasion. Obviously there was a correlation politically but when there is still to this day confusion amongst the mainstream civilian as why the American military invaded Iraq in 2003, the filmmakers should not be surprised by any imbroglio.
But then they’re those who believe the film to be anti-war; that the film is a statement on what war does to those who have to go back to civilian life with their families. The sequences back at home are the smoothest. They have a sense of life being captured, as though Chris Kyle is continuing to live his life devoid of the camera. Million Dollar Baby (2004), a previous Eastwood film, had the same quality. This is aided by Mr Cooper, who has never been more natural, even though this is probably his biggest stretch so far. Physically unrecognizable, it’s an understated, almost Bressonian performance that only ever adds to Mr Eastwood classicism. The best scene in the film involves Kyle being recognized by a veteran (Jonathan Groff) in an auto body shop, but is incapable to sustain eye contact with him.
Modern day war films shoot combat with an emphasis on chaos. Mr Eastwood (and cinematographer Tom Stern) shoots these sequences with a spatial cohesion that echoes the supreme perception that characterizes Chris Kyle. Is Clint Eastwood turning into a pro-war poster boy? Was Chris Kyle nothing more than a monstrous killing machine? Do Americans love nothing more than playing “Global Policemen”.
Again, none of these questions matter when it comes to American Sniper. The reaction to the film – or any film – will always be rooted in the audacity of the cinema and the form of which the piece is presented. It always perplexes me as to not only why people try to bend the cinema to the will of politics, but also why anyone would be more interested in dissecting the latter rather than the former. What is the film about? Why was it presented to us in this way? These are the important questions to ask.
What I saw was classicism barren of perfectionism, a film that flows elegantly with every-now-and-then an endeavor that didn’t work (the aforementioned 9/11 scene, the miscast Sienna Miller, the rather mishandled ending). Mr Eastwood’s last war film, Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), was for me, coincidentally, his last good one. But Mr Eastwood has made many great films and at 84 years of age his presence is still formidable.