American Sniper, 2014.
Directed by Clint Eastwood.
Starring Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Cory Hardrict, Jake McDorman, Kyle Gallner, Luke Grimes and Sam Jaeger.
Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle’s pinpoint accuracy saves countless lives on the battlefield and turns him into a legend. Back home to his wife and kids after four tours of duty, however, Chris finds that it is the war he can’t leave behind.
American Sniper is kind of terrible. Awful in a way that is almost shocking. A pointless, utterly worthless endeavor that is only salvaged by a fantastic performance from star Bradley Cooper. And it’s not terrible because it’s a jingoistic or insultingly patriotic (which it is). It’s terrible because Clint Eastwood has told the most threadbare of stories. The movie is ultimately about nothing, and the ending is downright insulting. I’m going to be getting into some major spoiler territory ahead, so if you haven’t seen the movie, stop reading when I start to discuss the movie’s baffling end point.
Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is a self-professed good ol’ boy from Texas. He rides wild bucks in the rodeo, drinks beer, wears boots, and is unpretentious in the best possible way. His priorities are God, family, and country. In that order. He’s drifting through clad in denim, draped in women, and enjoying this little life he’s carved out for himself. Then, he hears about some terrorist attacks happening overseas (pre 9/11) and decides it’s time to serve his country. Chris joins the Navy SEALS and begins a rigorous training process which few are able to complete. At 30, he’s older than the average recruit, but he has the resolve to push through and ends up becoming an elite sniper.
The film’s opening is one of the most thrilling scenes I can recall. It’s the same one featured in the trailer. A woman and a young boy exit a building as a US convoy full of Marines heads their way. She hands him a makeshift grenade and he begins running towards the troops. Is he turning in a weapon they found, or is he about to commit an act of terrorism that will cost soldiers their lives. The first five minutes of the movie are amazing. It’s like every ounce of tension, drama, and character are woven into that one moment. Then, director Clint Eastwood spends the remainder of the movie draining out all those important elements as the movie slowly bleeds out.
The character is such an enigma. A patriot in every sense of the word. He doesn’t question ‘why’, even when everyone else around him does. It’s an unpopular war. Even the soldiers tasked with achieving freedom in Iraq have a cynical attitude towards a war that is doing little to protect anything other than American interests in the region. Chris maintains his commitment to the cause, even when it almost tears his marriage apart. He struggles with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. His 160 kills have made him a legend in the military, but the horrors he’s witnessed are weighing heavier and heavier. Chris finally finds some solace helping other Veterans deal with the physical and emotional scars of war.
I didn’t know a thing about Chris Kyle before seeing this movie. The basic story felt thematically reminiscent of Hurt Locker. A guy who is really good at his job sees a lot of horrific violence in a nebulous war and for some reason the job becomes more important than the life he’s left behind. Hardly original, but certainly an average portrayal. Eastwood delivers a very ‘matter of fact’ movie. It’s a frills free look at a sniper in a combat zone, and some drama on the home front. It never finds that tension or perfection of the first few minutes. This is one of the truest instances of ‘everything good is in the trailer’. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen everything exceptional about American Sniper. The rest of it is dead average, and the ending… oh my God the ending. Stop reading if you want to avoid some major spoilers.
As I said before, I knew nothing about Chris Kyle. I knew he was a real person and that this was a true story. The film ends abruptly. We’ve seen Chris helping other veterans featuring some nice moments where Chris finally begins to understand that helping his fellow soldiers may take more than killing the enemy. We see Chris at home with his family, finally achieving a small sense of peace. Then he tells his wife he’s going to take a drive to help another soldier in need. Then, everything fades to black and a graphic shows on-screen.
“Chris was killed that day by the soldier he was trying to help.”
Then, we see actual footage of Chris’ funeral procession.
There were three words that went through my head. The first two were “What” and “The”. I’ll spare you the third. He was killed by the soldier he was trying to help? How? Why? What were the events leading up to that moment? A thousand questions bouncing around my cranium. Some subsequent research informed me that he and another soldier were shot in the back while at a rifle range. Details are scarce because the accused killer hasn’t gone to trial yet. This is where I start to get angry at Clint Eastwood. Because maybe it’s me, but I think there might be a pretty good story there somewhere that would have made the end of American Sniper feel less insulting. Maybe Eastwood and company could have waited another year or two before filming the biographical feature film of ‘America’s Greatest Sniper’ so that we could have a proper ending.
I couldn’t get past the ending after I finished watching it. It was like the Poochie episode of The Simpsons where the character declares “I have to go back to my home planet now” before ascending up and out of frame. Or that completely baffling choice in Lincoln to stage a scene at a theater before realizing it’s not the one where Lincoln was assassinated. It would be like doing a movie about Hitler and ending right after he orders his forces to cross the Eastern Front. There is more to this story, and arguably a much more interesting story to be told.
Before seeing the ending I would have assigned one star for the movie’s opening, and one and a half stars for Bradley Cooper’s performance. Sadly, that ending almost negates everything that came before it. Like you just got to the most interesting part of the movie and someone yells “Oops, we’re out of time.” I can’t remember a more jarring ending to a movie and a more confusing creative choice. Disappointing doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Anghus Houvouras is a North Carolina based writer and filmmaker. His latest work, the novel My Career Suicide Note, is available from Amazon. Follow him on Twitter.