American Sniper

American Sniper
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Starring Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller
In UK Cinemas January 16th, 2015

by Michael Anderson

It would be all too easy for the adaptation of a bestselling memoir by the deadliest sniper in US military history (nicknamed ‘Legend’, no less) to paint a predictable, gung-ho picture of war and its consequences. In the hands of Clint Eastwood, though, American Sniper convinces as a straight-up rendition of Chris Kyle’s experiences and the toll it takes on himself and his family. Kyle’s motivation – a personal code of “God. Country. Family”, militarised by the 1998 embassy bombings, hardened by 9/11 – is helpfully transparent, while his four tours offer an easy chapter structure to demonstrate the increasing difficulty he encounters in adjusting to life back on the homestead.

The desire for urgency and a particular brand of realism has led to a proliferation of painstakingly handheld war films, but such formal tics are far from Eastwood’s bag; his famously economical, no-frills shooting style makes a refreshing change and presents as objectively as possible such necessarily one-sided content. Take one, take two (maybe), move on: the material breathes, and the audience makes their own mind up about what they are witnessing. Bradley Cooper follows his director’s lead, using little more than his unfathomably blue eyes, newly-thickened neck and a pair of sunglasses to successfully convey Kyle’s journey from rodeo wannabe to jaded American hero, while Sienna Miller does well in a slightly underwritten but pivotal role as Taya, wife, mother, and the film’s emotional barometer, crying down the phone to her husband while bullets fly past his head.

And the bullets do fly, as Eastwood presents us with an action movie’s worth of white-knuckle set-pieces – but arguably, given his film’s title, not a great deal of sniping. We meet Kyle in situ, preparing to make his first (gut-wrenching) kill, and after a paint-by-numbers training flashback, we see him establish his deadly reputation. Thereafter though he spends the bulk of his time very much on the ground, raiding houses, interrogating suspects, and flexing his neck in the back of jeeps.  While the focus ultimately never leaves Kyle, his transition to general action man disappoints somewhat since the film’s clear aim – to show the effects of war through one individual, and his family – is best achieved in contemplation, on the rooftops with our protagonist, staring through the crosshairs or at his slowly hardening face.

War films rarely have a villain in the conventional sense, but American Sniper’s focus on the individual almost requires one. We are in fact given two: ‘The Butcher’, an Al Qaeda lieutenant with a drill fetish lifted almost from an exploitation film, the hunting for whom forms the bulk of Kyle’s early tours; and more intriguingly Mustafa, a Syrian sniper whose elusive presence on the battlefield haunts Kyle, an apposite reflection of his own lethal actions. The film even builds to a high noon of sorts between the two sharpshooters, albeit a high noon 1000+ metres apart, and it is regrettable that more time is not committed to their connection. At any rate, the ensuing rooftop firefight is a thrilling climax, the sandstorm which clouds the battle saying more about the ambiguity of what we have witnessed than two hours of hand-held footage and conscientious dialogue ever could.

American Sniper is a film of real substance, an extraordinary story presented as ordinarily as possible, and all the better for it.

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