Review: Bradley Cooper shines but Eastwood misses the mark with stilted ‘American Sniper’

Clint Eastwood is an enormously capable filmmaker who, like any filmmaker who works non-stop, is capable of turning out films that are polished and considered and carefully calibrated, and equally capable of turning out nearly inert movies that are forgettable and barely register. What I find most interesting about his career is the way it took him a while to win critics over to his side, but once he did, he's been almost untouchable ever since. Any other filmmaker coming off of “Jersey Boys” would have been greeted on their next film with open skepticism, but it's a real sign of just how esteemed Eastwood is that he could release that film to near-universal indifference at the start of the summer, and yet his next film can be greeted like an event that sends seismic waves through the already-crowded Oscar season.

One of the things that I tend to avoid in my writing about film is weighing in on awards prospects and the way one film stacks up against another, but an event like Tuesday night's back-to-back screenings at the Egyptian create the direct sense of a horse race. First up was a work-in-progress screening of the sure-looked-finished-to-me “Selma,” and then the not-terribly-secret “secret screening” was Eastwood's latest, “American Sniper,” and both films were heavily attended by the people who spend their time handicapping the various awards ahead. While I'm still not going to wade into that conversation, it was interesting to see just how nakedly the AFI Fest has now become part of the strategic thinking about when and how to show things.

Overall, “American Sniper” is a solidly-staged but unexceptional picture, filled with overly familiar dramatic situations and a surprisingly blindered view of the world around its central character. While Bradley Cooper does a strong job of inhabiting the role of Chris Kyle, the real-life Navy SEAL whose story is told by the film, Jason Hall's script fails to crack why this story is being told to us.

Sure, Kyle is recognized as the most successful sniper in recorded military history, and he did immeasurable good in terms of protecting human life in the battlefield. I can't begin to imagine the way the people whose lives intersected with his feel about him, and the most moving thing in the film comes at the very end when we see real news footage of the funeral procession for Kyle. The sheer size of the mass of humanity who showed up to pay their respects speaks to the quality of Kyle's character. Cooper does a good job of trying to illustrate the inner life of someone who sounds, on the surface, like a recruitment poster. Kyle is a rodeo rider in his early 20s and eventually realizes that he's got no focus in his life. It's quietly hilarious how the beginning of this film plays like the straight-faced version of “Stripes,” with Kyle eventually realizing that he might as well join the military since nothing else has worked out. He immediately decides he's going to be a Navy SEAL, and then jumps into a montage that would make Matt and Trey cackle.

Here's the thing… by the rules of Hollywood filmmaking, everything Clint Eastwood does here is right. I can see the flow chart that Jason Hall laid out that illustrated the way the film would chart the evolution of Kyle as a character, and the movie does everything “right,” but there's not a second of it where I stopped thinking of it as anything but a movie, a formal exercise in turning the messy and honest real life of Chris Kyle, a real human being, into something stilted and predictable and safe. There are sequences in “American Sniper” that are staged well, and why wouldn't there be? At this point, Eastwood and his cinematographer Tom Stern have shot so many things and they have established such a shorthand that when it comes to staging a scene, they know what they're doing. That's a given. There are a number of scenes here where we see Chris Kyle in position, having to make the call on whether or not to drop the hammer on someone, and that's the entire moral hinge of the film. That's the choice I'm not equipped to make or judge, the moment that is faced by anyone who is ever called to kill in combat. It's different for snipers, because they are at a remove. They have a chance to think about what they're doing. They have a chance to make a call about what they're seeing. And there are several moments in “American Sniper” that starkly illustrate what it is that is faced every day by combat troops. It is not lost on me that I spent the end of my Veterans Day sitting in a theater watching these sequences unfold.

But speaking of “American Sniper” as a film, I'm struck by how routine it is, how by the numbers and predictable. That is not a judgment of Chris Kyle the person, but rather the film that has been spun from the real person. It drives me slightly crazy in a case like this because you aren't allowed to talk about the film without it somehow meaning something about the true story. When I wrote about “Lone Survivor” last year, or when I wrote about “Black Hawk Down,” I got angry e-mail from people who got mad at me because of the real people involved in the stories that inspired those films. If you are of the mind that I am not allowed to criticize the movie because of whatever the real Chris Kyle did, then you probably shouldn't even be reading at this point.

But if you're interested in how “American Sniper” works as a film, I'd say the biggest problem it has is that Clint Eastwood has already dealt with this exact material thematically, and he's done it much better. “Unforgiven,” after all, looks at the toll violence takes on the human soul and the way someone becoming a legend can make them a target and it does so with an elegance and a sense of both humor and humanity that is not present in “American Sniper.” There is one new idea in “Sniper” that I like, dealing with the way Kyle eventually tried to find peace once he came back Stateside. Andrew Niccol just made an entire film about the struggle to acclimate to family life, and Eastwood deals with that throughout this movie. The problem isn't the idea, but the expression of it. Things are written so on the nose that we're not allowed to feel anything. We're force-fed it, but there's not a moment in “American Sniper” that breathes like life. There was a real Chris Kyle, yes, and the things he did line up in some way with the things we see the movie version of Chris Kyle do, but the movie version is a symbol Writ Large, not a person. Same with his wife Taya (Sienna Miller), who he meets cute in a bar and then marries at the exact second that he is called overseas.

The character arc that Chris follows in the film has to do with his ability to do what has to be done. Once he decides to become a sniper, he has to learn to be able to do anything if he thinks it will save the life of an American soldier. There's a scene that is used as framework for the first half of the movie, an opening scene that stops at a crucial moment, only to loop back around halfway into the film. This time, we see exactly what Chris does, and it becomes a defining moment for him. He takes that moment and moves forward, hardened, ready to be the weapon that his government trained him to be. In-between, it's like Chris barely exists, and again, Cooper's performance work is so strong that it almost makes up for a script that I feel fails him. He's doing more work to define who Chris is than the script, and that's true for pretty much the entire film.

I don't feel good about recommending a film like this based on the action sequences, because you're not dealing with fantasy here. You're not dealing with superheroics. You're dealing with the real world, where someone put a bullet in someone else, and celebrating how that went down feels weird to me. There's a moment in this film, near the end, where something happens, someone's brains are splashed across a wall, and the crowd went wild, and while I get that when you're watching fiction, we were watching something tonight that professes to be a true-life story. And if that's true, and if this is true, then I was asked in the theater tonight to cheer for the death of a real person, and that's a very strange moral line for any film to try to navigate.

One of the biggest problems with making a film that deals with recent history is that you don't have any perspective. We're far enough away from the events of 9/11 that we can now dispatch that as shorthand in a film like this with a scene of someone watching the Towers fall on TV, then move right into the impact, but we're not far enough away to really grapple with the role we've played in the region since. Eastwood's film doesn't paint a forgiving picture of the way the military works in Iraq in the film, but he's more concerned with the rotting effect of Chris's doubts than the moral certitude of them

Eastwood's scores range from the overwrought (“Mystic River”) to the charmingly light (“Grace Is Gone”), with “American Sniper” demonstrating a few new sonic tricks and a fairly unerring sense of whats right for this story. The film is put together with a very solid, workmanlike sense of craft, and while I thought the film felt much longer than the two hours or so that it runs, individual scenes are cut well enough. It's the same basic gang who work for Eastwood on everything, and it feels loose-limbed and relaxed. The problem is, there's no real urgency to anything. The stakes for Chris aren't clear. He's so hung up on combat, but for unexplained reasons, that when he keeps returning to combat, it's not terribly surprising or terribly upsetting. The fights are noisy, but they're dull, and if we're not covering any new moral or thematic ground, the least we could do is get some great combat footage. “American Sniper” doesn't even really do that, and while I think the film pays a certain kind of humorless tribute to Chris Kyle, I don't believe I know the real man any better now than I did before I saw the film.

“American Sniper” is minor-key Eastwood, a film that certainly does not offend, but that does not transcend, either. For people who want a perfunctory tribute to a man who seems to have lived an anything-but-perfunctory life, “American Sniper” should thrill, but for anyone looking to this as a film first, it is a flat, oddly stilted misfire.

“American Sniper” is in theaters December 25, 2014.