Navy SEAL Chris Kyle was the most lethal
sniper in American military history. He
served four tours of duty in the Middle East, had more than 160 confirmed kills, was called "Legend" by his fellow soldiers, and was an emotionally distant husband and father while actively enlisted. Kyle's story is inherently fascinating. Clint Eastwood's telling of it in American Sniper is not.
Even with all that and more to work with, Eastwood's final product registers as a mundane bore that has the life sucked out of it from the get-go. The first deflating moment occurs when we see Chris (Bradley Cooper) on a lookout post in Fallujah, targeting a woman and child who seem to be carrying potentially explosive devices. Before the moment pays off, there's a flashback to scenes of Chris learning how to shoot, bull riding, his girlfriend cheating on him, bonding with his brother, Navy SEAL training that offers nothing new and meeting his future wife, Taya (Sienna Miller). On their wedding day, he learns his unit is going to the Middle East. Only then, roughly a half-hour into the film, do we return to Chris on the lookout targeting the woman and child.
Writer Jason Hall, working from Kyle's book American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, seems to be marking off a checklist of war movie clichés. For the opening half-hour to be effective, all those details need to collectively feed into Kyle at the lookout, but the segment is so crammed with unnecessary details, it's too scattered for its own good. As a result, when we get back to the lookout, we've forgotten about it, and all the suspense is lost.
Remember: Just because it's factual doesn't mean it should be in the movie. It is the duty of Eastwood and Hall to provide an entertaining story, not worry about getting things right. If Taya Kyle wanted a more fact-based biographical film, she should've sold the story rights to a documentarian.
More alarmingly, Chris' most interesting trait — his shooting ability — is given precious little insight. One would think a film about the deadliest sniper in U.S. history would take us inside his head to see how he views his targets. Not from the scope on his rifle, but from the thought process he goes through when spotting a target, focusing on the subject and deciding to fire. But Chris is kept at a distance, and Eastwood misses the chance to use the medium of film to tell Chris' story effectively.
Part of this could be because Chris kept himself at a distance. Between tours, he returned home to Taya and their children, but wasn't mentally or emotionally there. The film provides a brief glimpse of his home life, but it's over too quickly to register. His need to focus and not quit and be in the action is well-documented, so none of the content of him at home in Texas feels necessary. If you're going to make a movie that glorifies a great soldier, do it. Don't waste time showing him as a terrible father and husband.
And when you are glorifying the soldier, do so with focus and style. Eastwood saps the inherent curiosity from Chris' exploits by using muted colors and allowing scenes to run far longer than they should. Although Chris is trying to catch rival sniper Mustafa (Sammy Sheik) (the rivalry between Chris and Mustafa would've been an interesting subplot to develop more), the story is episodic and lacks a clear narrative arc. The Exploits of an American Sniper might have made for a nice television series in which Chris goes on mission after mission, but it doesn't play well in a 134-minute movie.
Clint Eastwood was handed two prime properties in 2014 (remember Jersey Girl? Didn't think so.), and the results have been underwhelming. The truth is, there aren't many directors we'd rather have working on American Sniper. They can't all be Oscar winners, right?