Any films that explore the U.S. response to September 11 have a tricky task on their hands. With conflicts still going on and much of the response still under scrutiny, Hollywood has had to balance both the political and the personal whist still being sensitive to both. That makes ‘American Sniper’, the latest film from Oscar-winning director Clint Eastwood a strange case. Originally intended for Steven Spielberg, the film tackles a legacy worthy of both praise and criticism, but is someone as heavy-handed as Eastwood the right man for the task?
‘American Sniper’ looks at the service career of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history, following his tours of duty during the Iraq War and his marriage with his devoted wife Taya (Sienna Miller). The major issue with the film though, is that this is literally all the film is about - an episodic meandering through Kyle’s life without any thematic or structural link to hold it together. I should mention off the bat that you won’t find any love from me towards Clint Eastwood and his films. Those I have seen I have had numerous issues with, and ‘American Sniper’, though one of his better ones, is no exception. The technical craft of the film itself is admirable, particularly the tremendous sound design and some clever editing, but it suffers from the same issues that plagued his other films – poor pacing, inadequate representation of women and no clarity of purpose. The plodding rhythm only makes the film less engaging than it could be, and Sienna Miller feels totally underused in the film both because of her skills as an actor and because Taya is a surprisingly engaging character.
The latter problem though is the most important. The film suffers immensely from a seeming lack of purpose and intention. We’re being walked through Kyle’s life, but we’re never told exactly why. If the intention was to present an All-American Hero, then that’s great, but the cumulative effect of that ends up being unsatisfying. Little is offered in terms of commentary on modern military life, on the relationships between servicemen, on the difficulties of returning to civilian life or any of the myriad of themes and ideas the film flies past. Eastwood has made a film full of sound and fury, but it really does end up signifying nothing other than how great a hero Kyle was, and in the post-9/11 film landscape, that simply isn’t good enough. Compared to films like ‘Jarhead’ or ‘The Hurt Locker’, ‘American Sniper’ seems like all huff and no puff. Plus it has one of the infernal piano scores Eastwood insists on writing for his films that always set my teeth on edge with their banal simplicity.
That said, what does hold the film together is Bradley Cooper, who give a brilliant performance as Kyle. His commitment to the technical demands of the role is as impressive as his detailed psychological exploration of this man and his difficult profession. There are flashes in Cooper’s performance that suggest the film it could have been, and even I have to admit that Eastwood knows how to work with actors even if his skills as a filmmaker are aggravatingly banal. It’s Cooper that ends up being the glue for the film, and while it can’t save it from its lack of focus, he does make it worth watching.
The film suffers immensely from a seeming lack of purpose and intention.
As the silent credits rolled though, I couldn’t help but think that this decision alone typified the central problem with ‘American Sniper’ – this is a film that thinks itself incredibly important and profound, but neither earns that title not explains why it should have it. The result is a nothing film that leaves you shrugging and wandering off to find something of substance to fill the void. Personally, I’ll always wonder what Spielberg would have made of the material. Clint Eastwood certainly hasn’t made much use of it.
PICTURE & SOUND
There’s a steely, dusty look to ‘American Sniper’, thanks to some of the lovely cinematography from Tom Stern, and Warner Bros. show it off well with an excellent 1080p 2.40:1 transfer. Colours are muted and de-saturated, but detail is excellent throughout. The only issue that ever arises is with the colour red, which always looks oddly out of place in the image, but I’m not sure whether this was an artistic choice or a fault in the transfer. The Dolby Atmos 7.1 track is a thunderous affair, showing off easily the best technical achievement of the film. It’s an immersive, often assaulting audio experience, especially in the climactic battle that contends with gunfire, explosions and a gargantuan sand storm. It’s well balanced, especially with the dialogue, and certainly shows off the added power that Atmos gives to Blu-ray audio.
There are only two featurettes included, but both are substantial enough to cover a lot of material. ‘One Soldier’s Story: The Journey of American Sniper’ (31:04) covers the initial development of the film, started before Kyle’s unexpected death, and how the project changed afterwards and with Eastwood’s involvement. Screenwriter Jason Hall talks about his intentions for the film, which sound far more interesting and nuanced than the final film. The second feature, ‘The Making of American Sniper’ (28:35) covers more the making of the film itself and the work from the cast. All the major players are interviewed, but each of the featurettes have the same sense of importance that cripples the film without ever explaining why we should find it important. Fans of the film will find much to enjoy though in these well-made behind-the-scenes glimpses.