Often when an actor has a passion project it turns out to be something that should never have been attempted and ends up as a very expensive way to massage their ego. However, while Bradley Cooper was one of the major driving forces behind American Sniper, it was always clear he was onto something interesting. Indeed, at one point Steven Spielberg even signed on to direct, before the gig went to Clint Eastwood.
While Clint may be known as a bit of a hard man actor, he really brings the emotion out of what could have been a rather stereotypical war story in other hands.
The film is about Chris Kyle (Cooper), who found ‘fame’ of sorts when he became the Navy SEAL sniper with the most verified kills in US history. However, the movie isn’t just about his time on the battlefield but also its effects – both how he deals with what he’s doing while on tour (which for a sniper is oddly personal, as it involves very deliberately finding a single person and snuffing out their life) and also when he arrives back home and is suddenly supposed to jump into ‘normal’ life again.
This proves difficult for Chris, putting strains on his marriage to Taya (Sienna Miller), with the two of them loving one another but finding it increasing difficult to connect, as Chris deals with PTSD and a seeming inability to find peace.
American Sniper is an oddly fascinating film, particularly in regards to how people have reacted to it. Many, particularly on the right-wing in the US, have cheered it on as a pro-military, pro-shooting Muslims, jingoistic paean to how awesome war is, while others on the left have decried it for exactly the same reasons. However, it strikes me you can only fully take it like that if you ignore what it actually tries to do, which is to give the soldiers’ eye view of war, while being apolitical about the merits of the conflict itself.
That does mean there is an aspect of ra-ra-America, and an us vs. them mentality that tends to present the Arabs as a mass of possible/probable killers. However, the movie does point out that this is how it becomes for the soldiers almost by necessity, in order for them to do what they are asked to do. In the heat of the field they cannot weigh up the morality of everything they do, and so it all gets rather simplified – something which comes back to haunt many of them afterwards, and which the movie does suggest is extremely problematic even while at war.
And while I’m generally quite a liberal fellow, I think some of my brethren ought to take a deep breath with American Sniper, as after a decade and a half of saying you can support the troops without supporting the war, there’s been an almost obtuse effort not to see it that way with this movie. Perhaps that’s a little unfair, but it does seem to be a case of both the rabidly pro-war and anti-war wanting their preconceptions to be fulfilled and then deciding the movie fulfils them by latching onto the aspects that might support that viewpoint, and then ignoring what the movie is really trying to do. Indeed, for a movie that is about how for many soldiers being on the battlefield is less complicated than dealing with the aftermath, it’s not a particularly pro-war film at all.
It is a very effective one though, with Cooper putting in sterling work in the lead role (although he is becoming the master of performances where it’s easy to see both why he deserved an Oscar nomination and also why he didn’t win), and Eastwood bringing his usual subtle touch behind the camera. It’s Clint’s great skill that he makes films that seem so simple, as if he simply turned up one day, put a camera somewhere and then told the actors to do whatever they fancied in front of it. However, in reality it’s far more controlled and delicate than that, so that when he does decide to deliver a sucker-punch, it really hits home.
He does that several times here, and indeed it’s arguable that the film wouldn’t have had the adulation, Oscar noms and record-breaking box office run (including an astonishing $350 million in America – which is more that Guardians Of The Galaxy or Mockingjay) it had, if it weren’t for its masterfully impactful ending. It’s a brilliant way of doing something which hammers what the film has been about, while ensuring it will stick in the audience’s head long after the credits run.
Without giving too much away in case you don’t know what happened, the movie wouldn’t have even had this ending when it first went into development, but then real life intervened. It could have been done in a horrifically melodramatic way, but instead the movie finds a way to deal with it that pulls the whole thing movie together to be more than the sum its part.
In fact, I half wonder whether those who’ve taken it to be massively pro-war are more reacting to its emotional impact than to what that impact is really about, and what it says about war, irrespective of the rights and wrongs of the actual battle.
Overall Verdict: The conversation about American Sniper has been rather hijacked by pro and anti-war/military factions, both of whom seem determined to undermine what the film actually is – an extremely effective look at war for the soldier, both on and off the battlefield, who has to find ways to deal with the reality of it all, rather than just the politics.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac