American Sniper (Warner Bros., R)

sniper 75This could have been a good film, if not for poor storytelling, bad characterization, bad effects…bad everything.

sniper 500 

I would expect a lot of average moviegoers to see American Sniper as a grab on the territory Kathryn Bigelow has made so fertile lately, with films like The Hurt Locker or Zero Dark Thirty. But then you see it’s directed by Clint Eastwood, and, hey!—maybe it’s actually an okay film, and not some sloppy Act of Valor nonsense.

But nope, American Sniper is Act of Valor nonsense: artless, dumb, questionable, TV quality in every regard (to be charitable). It might seem strange, until you recall that occasionally Eastwood makes a stinker, like 2011’s J. Edgar (or last year’s The Jersey Boys, for that matter). We tend to collectively block out these films, so as to keep Eastwood his Hollywood legend certification. But think about it: When’s the last time Eastwood actually directed a good film? 2006’s Letters of Iwo Jima was pretty good, I guess. I liked Million Dollar Baby in 2004. But Hereafter? Invictus? Gran Torino?

This is all a shame, as it feels like American Sniper could have been a good film, if not for all of the chunky, blocky editing, poor storytelling choices, bad characterization, bad effects…bad everything. The film is based on Chris Kyle’s memoir of the same name, with Kyle being the most deadly sniper in U.S. military history. In the film Kyle is played by Bradley Cooper, who is still giving becoming a Serious Actor a go after his successes with David O. Russell in that department. His performance here is acceptable, but not enough to save the movie.

American Sniper consists of the dichotomy of Kyle’s life in America versus his life in Iraq, which may sound familiar from The Hurt Locker’s structure. In America, Kyle woos his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller, unrecognizable due in part to dyed hair, and also not really given much to do aside from stay in America and brood), and in Iraq he shoots at brown people from safe distances. Depending on your disposition toward the involvement of America in Iraq, the way this is handled is likely to trouble you. While most of the people Kyle shoots are in the act of planting a bomb or some other terroristic activity, the film takes for granted all of Kyle’s 100-plus kills were heroic on his part and perfectly justified, and the film seems to make bad guys out of all Iraqis. They’re referred to as “savages” more than once (apparently, Eastwood thinks he’s still making Westerns), but since it’s generally frowned upon to be racist against Native Americans these days, he’s directing his vitriol at the entirety of the Iraqi population. That is to say, this film could have used the Paul Greengrass touch. It might seem dumb to question the righteousness of the heroes in a patriotic war movie, but American Sniper invites it.

It isn’t even just its politics that made American Sniper fail; it gets everything wrong. It has bad, generic action-movie music and sound effects. It never makes clear how Kyle obtains his advantageous shooting locations in the first place, or how those working with him know where to put him and in what direction to point him. At one point, Cooper is holding a supposedly real baby, and it’s the fakest “real” baby I’ve seen in a movie in quite some time. Kyle keeps talking to his wife on the phone in the middle of firefights. The whole thing is thoroughly ridiculous.

Hollywood is often accused by the right of being liberal, and on the whole, it is. In that regard, I’m all for a movie being made for conservative Texans rather than liberal New Yorkers. (Speaking of which, this movie would have been more aptly titled Texan Sniper than American Sniper.) The confusing part is how Eastwood could have made a film as amateurish as this one. | Pete Timmermann

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