DIRECTED BY Clint Eastwood
STARS Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller
Bradley Cooper in American Sniper (Photo: Warner Bros.)
The weakest of the eight newly announced nominees for the Best Picture Academy Award, American Sniper nevertheless turns out to be one of the better Clint Eastwood releases of recent vintage. But like most of his latter-day films in the director's chair, efforts like Invictus and J. Edgar, it's less a heartfelt piece of moviemaking and more a bald lunge to score yet more Oscar gold for his mantelpiece.
American Sniper relates the story of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), a U.S. Navy Seal shooter famous (infamous?) for recording more kills than anyone else in American military history (160 confirmed, another 95 probable). Despite Eastwood's own conservative leanings, the filmmaker can hardly be dismissed as a knee-jerk chickenhawk or rambling right-wing tool (well, aside from that Razzie-worthy bit opposite an empty chair at the RNC), and his films have over the decades served as an intriguing — and evolving — treatise on issues of gun violence and hero worship, beginning with the hardline stylings of Dirty Harry through the revisionist politics of Unforgiven through the startlingly progressive stance of Gran Torino. Unfortunately, American Sniper adds nothing new to this conversation — more so since it comes on the heels of more accomplished "over there" efforts like Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker — and while Eastwood and scripter Jason Hall take some care in muddying the morality at play, they still err on the side of sainthood in painting their portrait of Chris Kyle, a man whose more tasteless actions and comments have been white scrubbed from this biopic.
In one sense, that doesn't matter, as fictionalizations never claim to be carved-in-stone documentaries — nor should they be. It's just interesting that in an awards season in which Selma was dragged through the mud for its inaccurate portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson — a cacophonous racket of swiftboating tactics believed to have ultimately hurt its Oscar take — any whispers about American Sniper's inaccuracies have been underreported by a cowed U.S. media afraid of the right-wing hit machine (as Lindy West reported in her Guardian piece titled "The real Chris Kyle was a hate-filled killer. Why are simplistic patriots treating him as a hero?," which naturally had to run in a non-U.S. paper, conservative goobers have already suggested that anyone who says anything remotely bad about Chris Kyle or this film deserves to be raped, waterboarded and beheaded). American Sniper features a solid turn by Cooper (the other male parts are largely indistinguishable from one another) and a few sequences that pack a visceral kick (such as the opening in which Kyle must decide whether or not to blow away a potentially dangerous child or a later sequence in which he matches wits with an opposing sniper), but a little more complexity would have allowed the picture to score a more direct hit.