By Bob Garver
Jan. 26, 2015. “American Sniper” follows the life of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), a U.S. Navy S.E.A.L. with 160 confirmed kills in Iraq. It is technically a 2014 film because it opened in limited release in time to qualify for the Academy Awards (for which it got six nominations including Cooper for Best Actor and the film for Best Picture). But it has made no shortage of headlines in 2015 due to its record-breaking box-office performance and controversial subject. There have been accusations that the real Kyle was too trigger-happy, but the Kyle of the movie never shoots anybody that isn’t a definite threat to his fellow soldiers.
Early scenes are pretty standard for a war movie. We see Kyle as a child where he’s a decent shot with a hunting rifle and he’s told that it’s okay to use violence to protect people he cares about. His early adult life (circa late 90s) is rather aimless until he joins the military, and then he goes through what I thought was a relatively tame version of S.E.A.L. training. He also meets his future wife Taya (Sienna Miller) and they have a cute little courtship. It’s at his wedding in 2003 that Kyle learns he’s about to be deployed. These early scenes aren’t bad, but you know the movie is just going through the paces until it can get to Iraq.
Once in Iraq, Kyle is assigned to protect ground-based Marines by overseeing their operations from a high vantage point and shooting any threats that come their way. He excels at this, neutralizing several threats and saving the lives of many fellow soldiers. He quickly earns himself a reputation as an expert sniper with the nickname “Legend.” Not that he doesn’t deserve credit for his skilled shooting, but I think he should get even more credit for his talent for spotting enemies. One-hundred and sixty kills meant that he was able to identify 160 individual threats.
The action scenes in Iraq are by far the best in the movie. There is of course the extremely intense scene from the trailers where Kyle has to decide whether or not to shoot a child who almost certainly poses a threat, and it’s not even the only scene where he has to make a tough decision involving a child. Plus, there are many other scenes with standoffs, interrogations, firefights and other hostile confrontations. And they aren’t always from far-off sniper distances, which is not to say that military snipers like Chris Kyle aren’t incredibly brave and selfless for entering war zones and engaging in deadly combat just because they protect themselves with distance and cover.
Between and after his four tours of Iraq, Kyle has to live with what he’s seen. Supposedly the movie is just as much about his struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as it is in his war efforts. But I don’t think the film dives deep enough into his psychological issues. The few scenes we do gat are decent: arguments with his wife, an inconsiderate trip to a bar, an unnerving exchange with a playful dog at a barbeque (though I would argue that a minor freakout in a maternity ward would be expected from any new father regardless of PTSD), but there are too few of them and the storyline doesn’t seem to account for much of the film’s energy.
Aside from the heart-stopping combat scenes, “American Sniper” is little more than an ordinary soldier movie about an extraordinary soldier. It’s competent to be sure, and I can see why Bradley Cooper got an Oscar nomination. I’m sure he could have handled more responsibility with the PTSD material, as he’s demonstrated in public appearances that he’s passionate about the subject. I wish the film would have let him be more dynamic with his performance. This is a respectable project, though I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “Oscar-worthy.”
Two and a half stars out of five.