A Mumbling Texas Jesus: Intimate Understatement Compromises “American Sniper”

Review, “American Sniper” – ** ½ stars

Released December 25, 2014
Directed by Harry Callahan
Written by Jason Dean Hall
Cinematography by Tom Stern
Starring Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller
Running Time: 132 minutes
Budget: $58.8 million
Worldwide Box Office: $547.33 million

I arrive at this appraisal at cross-purposes: on the one hand, I am a devout Clint Eastwood fan. I dig both his acting and (most of his) directing output. Favorite Clint acting-only work: “Dirty Harry” (1971) or “In The Line of Fire” (1993) — it’s a tie, favorite Clint directing work: “A Perfect World” (1993, his follow-up to “Unforgiven”). I love his longevity and the breadth of his career choices, and generally think of him as a paragon of cinematic masculine bad-assery. Operating in that framework (i.e. as a fan of Clint), “American Sniper”’s record-obliterating box office success has been pretty fun to see. On the other hand, I can’t believe this thing got nominated for Best Picture. Looking at it purely as a movie, “American Sniper” is, at best, a confounding mediocrity. Yes, Clint can still direct the hell out of an action scene (with the notable exceptions of a pathetic digital bullet’s POV kill-shot, which was old by the time they overused it in the Ben Affleck “Daredevil,” and a chase through a sandstorm that is impossible to see), and those happily comprise the bulk of this picture. On the other hand, the bare-bones script by Jason Dean Hall leaves the moments of supposed human drama, the scenes when shells ain’t flying and soldiers ain’t dying, sorely lackluster.

Bradley Cooper plays real-life sharpshooting superstar Chris Kyle as a kind of mumbling Texas Jesus, a quiet do-gooder who has trouble connecting with the world outside of the military, including his cardboard cut-out Debbie Downer of a wife, a nothing role ably performed by Sienna Miller. It’s a shame that Miller has to go to HBO to get solid acting material (check her out in “The Girl”), she’s a great actress, but Clint doesn’t give her much to do her aside from dutiful sobbing. Especially annoying is the way Clint connects Cooper/Kyle’s 9/11-inspired decision to enlist with his being stationed in Iraq for the WMD conflict (those two scenes happen in quick succession, as if the difference between the two separate issues doesn’t need to be explained), which, as we all know, had nothing to do with 9/11.

The fact that Chris Kyle in real life may have fabricated an element or two of his memoir, upon which the movie is based, doesn’t have as much bearing on my criticism of the flick as Clint’s roughshod treatment of our country’s various skirmishes in the Middle East; the cinematic Kyle is a fictionalized, best-case scenario treatment of the real-life Kyle, and I am trying to judge Cooper’s Kyle separately from reality’s Kyle. Even taking that into account, Cooper’s Kyle doesn’t give me much to go off of, either. I’m really glad that Clint continues to make big, culturally important movies well into his dotage, I just wish this one was better.

In case all this reading has gotten you pining for some indulgent audio-visual stimulation, here’s Clint Eastwood talking to a chair.

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