A few years ago we saw a movie where an American soldier stationed in Iraq during the invasion goes through a severe psychological changeover. He’s so into the war and he’s so good at warfare he finds it difficult to go back to his life back home in the peace. Social life makes him awkward. Shopping seems like a mundane activity to him. And the only thing that makes him smile during the whole day is when he speaks to his mates at the warfront. That movie was called The Hurt Locker.
This movie is called American Sniper, and it’s a very similar film, only much less interesting.
Eight years after Letters to Iwo Jima Clint Eastwood goes back to the warzone with American Sniper, a biography of Chris Kyle, the most successful sniper rifle specialist stationed in Iraq. Bradley Cooper is pretty good as Kyle, bulked and bearded, with a very heavy Southern accent. Kyle’s journey in Iraq is very much like the protagonist of The Hurt Locker. He’s sent there as a prodigy, excels in his work by killing the locals and saving American lives, and slowly undergoes PTSD and eventually struggles to like peace and quiet when there’s gunplay for work.
Now it’s fine to tell a story that’s already been done before, but it’s not ok to tell it in a soulless manner, let alone a story that’s been done before. The lack of soul makes American Sniper the weakest of the three Oscar bait biographies releasing this week.
The thing with American Sniper is that is goes through the motions like a standard Hollywood bottom feeding machine. There are certain plot points one expects from a standard issue war action drama – like the themes of brotherhood and jingoism, the scene where a friend is shot, the ambush, the sticky situation where negotiations have to be made, and the ultimate antagonist who has the same set of skills as the protagonist but is of course dealt with by the hero in the end. American Sniper follows all of those points to the hilt, and still has the stench of pretentious self-important direction where it wants you to believe it’s showing you something new. It neither says or does anything new, and nor does it transcend the clichés.
One would expect a movie named American Sniper to showcase something interesting about the way a Sniper works and how he is different from the other machine gun trotting foot soldiers in the army. No such luck, because Kyle could be carrying a pistol or even a knife and you wouldn’t know the difference because he’s the same mega patriotic nice guy you’ve seen a billion times in cinema. And it doesn’t matter if he’s played by Bradley Cooper, the character is so clichéd you could replace him with Jack Nicholson and it wouldn’t matter.
The most disappointing thing about the film is that it doesn’t even make up for the lack of originality with exciting action sequences. The aesthetics and style of shootouts are painfully derivative. You have to hand it to Spielberg and Ridley Scott for creating a whole genre of cinema with Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down – every single war movie since then has borrowed from these two films. Every bullet fired in American Sniper just reminds you how great the other films were, and how dull this movie is.
And when the film tries to get away from the action part to focus on the drama it stumbles even harder, because the drama is anchored by the frightfully charmless Sienna Miller as Kyle’s wife. There is no chemistry between Cooper and Miller, and their romance is snooze inducing at best. The only thing American Sniper has going for it is the cinematography by Tom Stern who continues his good work with Eastwood. The latter, although impressive that he’s making half decent films at his age needs to pick scripts that would do justice to his efforts.
Seemingly the film gives up trying altogether in the end, when a shocking detail is presented in words rather than as an actual visual plot point. It makes one wonder where the director of Mystic River has disappeared. This film is neither awards worthy nor a crowd-pleasing piece of escapist entertainment – it’s an awkward combination of the worst side of both those aspects. One thing is clear though - even if Clint Eastwood makes a video of a plain white doorknob he’ll still score nominations for best picture and director.
(First published in MiD Day)