Nobody crashes an Oscar party quite like Clint Eastwood. After “Million Dollar Baby” (2004) memorably parachuted into the race at the tail end of 2004 to steal the thunder from Martin Scorsese’s season-long odds-on favorite “The Aviator”, and, only two years later, “Letters from Iwo Jima” (2006) similarly shot into the Best Picture lineup while nobody was looking, his latest work came on the heels of the disappointing “Jersey Boys” (2014) and landed like a bomb. Breaking box office records left and right while permeating the public consciousness like few others could, “American Sniper” suddenly became THE zeitgeist movie in a prolonged award season, earned six Academy Award nominations and eventually took home one statuette.
Much like “Baby, “Iwo Jima” or another Oscar contender “Mystic River” (2003), “American Sniper”, which recounts the life story of US Navy Seal Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper), is a technically polished, tragically elegant film that unfolds with impressive fluency. Despite the massive set pieces and deafening sound effects that go hand in hand with a war movie, it retains a feel of focused, graceful leanness that is a trademark of Eastwood and undeniably masterful. Aided by compact, soberly efficient editing, the narrative is deliberate and economical, moving from life-and-death judgment calls on the field to formative childhood memories, from the madness of ceaseless killings on foreign soil to the maddening stillness of the suburban day-to-day back home. In that process, the viewer is firmly locked in the mind and experience of one individual coping with extraordinary circumstances. Manipulative or not, the storytelling is exact, to the point, and compels with a muscular, non-sensationalistic air of conviction.
Certainly the script is not without its faults. The linear, connect-the-dots approach to dissecting a troubled personality can seem a bit too convenient at times and the dialogue, especially the lines of the underwritten Taya (played by Sienna Miller), Kyle’s lonely home-bound wife, often strike one as simplistic of the obvious sort. A lot of that failing Eastwood made up for through his composed, fiercely committed direction, but ultimately this movie won’t be known for its tact or subtlety.
That said, the themes of the film do come cross loud and clear: who are we if not how we’re raised and what we’ve been exposed to along the way? What’s there to fall back on but the sum of our upbringing, instincts and faiths when we’re put in situations of extreme pressure and all else fails? How is one supposed to function in a pacified, blissfully oblivious existence after living through such traumatizing, dehumanizing trials? Can a society expect those it trains as weapons to return from duty with not much more than a few scars and some unhinged nerves?
Here the movie is at its most divisive: the portrayal of a way of life – of a value system – could be read as an endorsement thereof. Similarly, the depiction of a celebrated soldier might be construed as sympathy or glorification, which is just a stone’s throw away from the whole film serving as right-wing propaganda, as ideological brainwashing. It’s not surprising that the film has stirred up waves of controversy since its release in the US, considering how inherently political its subject matter is. Especially in times of a polarized America and a world where religiously-inspired animosity continues to take lives, the project about a sniper known for gunning down Iraqi enemies and civilians can’t possibly win favors with everyone.
Evoking just as much discomfort from this reviewer as the next liberal-minded audience member, particularly in its final stretches where a sense of martyrdom and hero worship asserts itself ever more prominently, the film nevertheless describes with success a specific mentality that deserves to be known. Based on the Bible, firearms and a survival philosophy that borrows from wildlife, it’s certainly a limited way of thinking that carries with it a warped worldview, but that doesn’t make the cinematic exploration thereof less valid. And whether one agrees with its innately conservative tone or not, the film represents a distinct and, judging by the phenomenal box office take, prevalent voice. A voice echoed with blunt, almost barbaric honesty. This fact alone very much justifies the making of the film. And however one sees in the tortured-soul narrative a reprehensible effort to exonerate, vindicate or even persuade, it’s to be noted that films and other forms of artistic expression should not be discredited just because they opt for a perspective or take a stance.
Cooper is solid as the tough, ruthless, broken, haunted killer, compelling through mere physical presence and a fatal calm shared by the morally certain and doctrinally guided. Miller’s performance feels considerably less substantial partly due to the undernourished written material. Otherwise the film looks fine and sounds even more impressive. The action sequences, whether close-range or panoramic, are characterized by a meticulous aural design, adding immeasurably to their tension and immersive effect. A scene towards the end set within a major sandstorm that showcases the various layers of material and movement involved is impeccably executed and worthy of that sound editing Oscar on its own.
Flawed in not unnoticeable ways and so hot-bloodedly Republican as to lend itself to incendiary interpretations, “American Sniper” is nonetheless an altogether accomplished and highly watchable piece of work. It’s “dangerous” as many would label it exactly because, cinematically speaking, it’s simply quite good.