Written by Ankit Ojha
What to Expect
A film like American Sniper would be a great example of an electrifyingly simplistic pre-release packaging done to any high-profile studio film thus far. The first trailer oozed eons of show-stopping tension, flitting back and forth between the personal and the professional, interwoven through a very effective scene riddled with dilemmatic decisions.
Only later did I get a whiff of what the movie was actually about.
Based on a memoir of the same name, American Sniper is the apparent collaborative attempt of Clint Eastwood (Hereafter) and Jason Hall (Paranoia – sigh) to bring a “true-to-life” autobiographical account of the real American Sniper Christopher Scott “Chris” Kyle to the living, breathing big screen. Eastwood, who hasn’t had a particularly good run at the movies of late (remember Jersey Boys?) would probably have been banking on this film to get back in the audiences’ good books. And quite honestly, all elements considered, there couldn’t have been a film more right for the job.
Considering Bradley Cooper’s rising fame to the accomplished actor that he is today; and the faith I still had for Eastwood as a director, I couldn’t wait to see this film.
Sometimes, however, the people you continue to expect their specific potential from have a knack of continuing to disappoint – almost simply because they can.
What’s it About?
This is basically the story of American Sniper Chris “Legend” Kyle (Bradley Cooper; Silver Linings Playbook) and his war tours, and how this basically affects him as a husband, father and human being.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
The introductory dramatic set-piece is an electrifying introduction to the potential heart pounding film this could have been. As the clock ticks and Kyle is forced to make a decision between “his men” and the kid holding the bomb, the tension skyrockets to a whole new level, mirroring (in all obviousness) the tension reaches an ultimate high.
Until, however, the ever-so-cliche match cut keeps the continuity flowing between the present timeline and the flashback. We’re introduced to an ever-obnoxious father, his cowering wife, and the two kids, one of whom – Chris – would grow up to be an equally obnoxious person. For a film that’s trying to have a should-have-been-precedented synecdoche of good and evil, one would expect the protagonist to be built up as a likable character. What we’re advised as viewers, however, is to automatically get ourselves to relate to him during his progressive stages through PTSD, which cannot happen without any justification. In the first half of the film, we’re shown him catching his girlfriend cheating on him red-handed. As she screams out her last-ditch justification before she’s asked to leave, I was personally more okay with her side of the story than his.
And we don’t even know her except for in the minute-or-two she’s on the screen.
For the section of the audience coaxing me to understand that joining the army and marrying the woman he loved changed him, I won’t deny that part of it all. I will, however, not take that as an excuse for an inconsistently written character graph. Saved marginally by Cooper’s mostly extraordinary, restrained performance, the character desperately floats its way through.
In comparison to the protagonist, it is Taya’s character who gets a more justified role – a human voice, if I may. Everyone else is basically cookie-cutter from “War Movie 101”, really. Understanding fully well that the film also attempts to cover the after-effects of war and how it changes you, Fury – a film with similar sentiments – was able to achieve that in a measure way better than this one. In the Ayer film, the audience was introduced to characters as dislikable as the harsh, cold winds, and yet attempted to subtly betray their more human, dangerously vulnerable side. In this film, the rigmarole of character justification is poor and clunky.
From a generic screenwriting viewpoint too, the movie is nothing but a superficial synecdoche when it could have easily milked the specifics through careful attention-to-detail, thereby allowing for more involvement of the viewers. This causes the film to clump itself into the gratuitous, xenophobic mess it shouldn’t have been.
That it is an over-glorified war film and a propaganda piece is what some people have to say about the movie. While I won’t comment on whether I agree or disagree with those (diplomacy? Let’s just say this is a blog about film), I can – at the very east – understand Eastwood’s point of view over creating the kind of tone he did in the movie, considering his political belief system. Despite that, however, I expected a humane level of subtlety, which the film didn’t have an inch of – and this includes the film’s rather abrupt (read lazy), expository end.
What the film tries to float its boat on, however, are the cinematography and the depiction of some segments of war tours through its action set pieces (unfortunately having an inconsistent tone through and through). Tom Stern uses frame dynamics and shot angles and distances to his advantages to attempt to bring to life human emotion in trying times. The background score is mostly silent, giving the more dramatic shifts between scenes an edge. The production design has detail, but ultimately feels quite conventional.
To Perform or Not to Perform
Bradley Cooper is one of the few best things about the film. Despite his gratingly inconsistent character graph and how it’s plated out through the film’s narrative, he pitches forward an impressive performance through most of the scenes, delivering on a lot of nuances quite well. It’s quite unfortunate that those nuances are brushed away for a more hollow, manipulative voice that ultimately renders his performance flat as a floor. Sienna Miller comes a close second with her substantial role paying off for what it’s worth. Sammy Sheik as the person who’s been pitched to pull off the role of the antagonist-till-the-end (him being a sniper too) is a fun watch, but the way his character is structured is almost hilariously cliche-ridden. The others come and go. They’re just about alright for the film’s structure.
I can understand why this movie evokes a sense of patriotism into the minds and hearts of some viewers. What I cannot – and will never be able to – understand is that they can’t see how shoddily the movie is, purely as a film – stepping completely aside from the political and human statements it’s trying to make. which doesn’t make up for how much of a to do list the film’s script is. Appallingly xenophobic in tone, the movie presents to us the biography of a character its makers want us to like. Quite unfortunate thus, that despite Cooper impressively shouldering a rather underdeveloped, unjustified and unlikable character, the movie in itself is a disappointingly manipulative to-do list, to the extent of grating the discerning viewer aiming to watch a film sans too much bias.
Star Rating: 2 / 5