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Why “American Sniper” Misses the Mark

January 24, 2015

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Americans have voted with their wallets: Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is a huge box-office hit, racking up $200 million in its first 10 days of release. In a somewhat rare occurrence, the Academy agrees, as the film scored six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Bradley Cooper) and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Well, call me un-American, but I wasn’t blown away by the movie. My objections have little to do with the film’s politics, muddled as they are. Eastwood has always been more complicated as a filmmaker than he is as a political spokesman (just ask that chair he addressed at the 2012 Republican National Convention). His attitude towards violence has evolved from the ask-questions-and-shoot-before-they-can-answer days of Dirty Harry and The Man With No Name to his masterfully rueful ruminations of the ramifications of mayhem, Unforgiven and Mystic River.

As it recounts the life and (all-too-briefly) death of Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in U.S. history—as the film’s brilliantly calculated marketing campaign reminds us—American Sniper flirts with an anti-war message, depicting the post-traumatic stress that “the Legend,” as he’s nicknamed, and his fellow veterans suffer. Yet it ends on a note of empty hero worship, as Kyle seems miraculously cured of his PTSD by his work with veterans, which is quickly glossed over. (I wish Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall had devoted more of Sniper‘s 132-minute running time to his difficult life Stateside and less on rat-a-tat-tat action sequences of Kyle and his cohorts hunting down “savages” with names like “the Butcher.”)

It all starts with the script, of course, but Eastwood might’ve been able to breathe more life into the film’s stick-figure characters if he’d cast more nuanced actors. I gather I’m in the minority on this, considering he’s received (undeserved) Oscar nominations for three years in a row, but I don’t find Cooper to be an actor of any great depth. All I can see is the surface. Yes, he physically transformed himself for this role, packing on 40 pounds of muscle. But, to me, he seems dead behind the eyes, and not in a dead-eyed killer kind of way, which might suit this character. He’s just emotionally opaque.

As his long-suffering wife, Sienna Miller is equally skin-deep. She’s the very definition of a one-note character, constantly crying and complaining about her husband’s absence, physically as well as emotionally. Both actors are as un-lifelike as the creepy plastic baby Eastwood employed to embody their squirming infant.

None of the film’s other characters are allowed more than one dimension either. Once one of Chris’ fellow soldiers starts talking about the engagement ring he bought for his girlfriend, you know he’s doomed (Hot Shots! shot down this war-movie cliché more than 20 years ago with the character of Pete “Dead Meat” Thompson).

By skimming over Kyle’s death—his killer is barely even a character—American Sniper not only comes to an abrupt end but cheats the audience out of a meaningful catharsis. This could’ve been the cinematic equivalent of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”, a complex, albeit wilfully misunderstood, meditation on the true meaning of patriotism. Instead, it’s just a shallow shoot-’em-up. To paraphrase George W. Bush, as well as Hall’s screenplay: Mission not accomplished.

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