'Sniper' formulaic, doesn't live up to hype

Warner Bros.

By Andrew McClure, Daily Arts Writer
Published January 19, 2015

“American Sniper” nabbed a Best Picture nom this year alongside other unworthy picks (“The Theory of Everything” and “The Imitation Game,” two films equal parts unrealized and bravura-desperate), while bravura-capturing “Foxcatcher” got snubbed. Jason Hall’s script also received an unmerited nom for Best Adapted Screenplay, a decision by the Academy driven by the requisite of filling five spots, and nothing more, maybe less. Clint Eastwood’s (“Gran Torino”) wincingly problematic “American Sniper” is buoyed only by Bradley Cooper’s nuanced portrayal of Chris Kyle, the “legendary” (a descriptor the script exhausts in fratircal fashion) Navy SEALs marksman on whose autobiography the script is based. In its episodic skeleton we never dig deep, dark, enough into Kyle’s seen-some-shit psyche and instead dig too long for meaning in Kyle’s life back home — except we’re digging using a twig, not a shovel.

American Sniper

Warner Brothers
Rave and Quality 16

Tired narrative tools thankfully don’t kick off until halfway through the opening scene where we find a surgeon-steady Cooper (“American Hustle”), belly-down atop a sandy roof in Iraq. Both eyes open, unmoving, he spots a little boy through his crosshairs. The boy is carrying an anti-tank hand grenade (an “RKG”) and walking toward the Marines. Cooper, as is protocol, walkie-talkies to a nearby Brother for confirmation to put him down. No confirmation. Then, in what ignites the next two hours of storytelling recyclables, the watchman Marine next to him redundantly says, “They fry you if you’re wrong.” Even if that line were included in the autobiography, come on, man.

Then we cut back in time to the grueling SEALs training on the beach, sleeping little, swallowing saltwater, being miserable — you know the drill. Then, naturally, the romantic spark occurs in the laughable setting of a bar, where a gorgeous yet unconvincing Sienna Miller (“Foxcatcher”) plays who other than his future wife. It all feels lazily familiar.

The rest of the picture vacillates without confidence between his sharpshooting genius in the Middle East and the worry-faced Miller who, despite attempts at momming up her look, still appears to be a supermodel. Without screening it again with a meticulous eye, I’d venture to guess that Eastwood and Hall held some calculated formula, like for every six kills that are supposed to elicit real emotion in us, let’s whip-pan back to Miller, who, invariably, between her husband’s four nine-month-long tours, is concerned for his chance to regain mental stability. In a few words, the film never fleshes out anything more meaningful than the fraternal bond amid his Brothers abroad via busting each other’s balls and saying shit like, “Get some, motherfuckers!”

Cooper, nonetheless, saved this film from lightless despair with his charming Texan-ness — the accent, the chivalry, the semi-intellectual sense of humor, the sincere grin. We feel safe in his presence. Even more, we need to be with him because Miller serves nothing other than a channel for his loaded emotions, something Eastwood only paws at.

One of the better scenes comes when Kyle runs into his little brother, who had just finished his first deployment tour, clearly shaken up, disturbed, by what he witnessed. The almost-jingoistic Kyle evinces disappointment, anger even, when little bro, before hopping into an aircraft, mumbles loudly, “Fuck this place.” Kyle possesses a telegraphable mania for war because, well, in his eyes there’s nothing better than serving your country and saving lives. Nothing. He doesn’t get his brother’s indifference. Cooper peppers beautifully raw moments like this throughout, but the too-lean, too-convenient entree that populates the remaining film doesn’t cut it.

As I walked into the theater, a friendly yet anxious man stopped me, “Seeing Sniper? Shit sucks.” He went on to say he had served duty, read the autobiography, hadn’t even seen the film, but complained that Kyle was lionized onscreen when, in reality, he killed several innocent children, among his 160 confirmed kills (and 255 probably kills). I couldn’t ditch the thought as I watched; However, by the end, it didn’t matter. Within its own universe, the film fails to find a power, energy higher than careening through mini missions and watching Miller try to sob. Cooper’s newfound gut carries more guts than the emaciated scriptwriting.