AMERICAN SNIPER. The title says it all. Or does it? The promise of action is delivered upon. It’s the raw portrayal of emotional conflict that is the unexpected factor. At first, I wondered is this title merely designed to grab your attention? Or is it to get the average person excited enough to buy a book or a movie ticket? I feel like a lot of folks will watch this movie expecting an action-packed war film. Most won’t expect the internal aspects and weight of the emotional drama contained within. I’d say this is a most welcomed surprise.
SNIPER is a complete film that illuminates its subject while avoiding any political affiliation or favouritism. This movie isn’t about if the war in Iraq was right or wrong. This movie isn’t the soldier-hero story. This movie isn’t about painting a villain. This movie is about war, and its multi-layered effects on the world. In this case, the focus spotlights CHRIS KYLE, America’s most lethal sniper in history.
The movie enjoyed a record-breaking opening weekend (of wide release). This stellar performance at the box office is especially impressive when you consider most record-breakers are superhero movies or genre sequels. Dramas rarely rake in this sort of money. A lot of Oscar nominated films see their expectations surpassed when they make $100 million. SNIPER nearly made that in one weekend.
Is this mass migration of the movie-going public flocking to war drama indicative of the shifting political climate? Are we ready for war movies? Are we ready account for the psychological effects of war?
Surprisingly, SNIPER is a focused tale about post traumatic stress disorder. I feel like its message is for the country to take better care of its returning soldiers. It seems like a lot of time and money and devotion is given to the military training of America’s youth, but it seems like there isn’t (yet) a secure transitional program that rehabilitates the Man who returns home. This movie clearly illustrates the ill preparation awaiting Kyle on his return.
BRADLEY COOPER portrays real life hero CHRIS KYLE with a nuanced subtlety. This big bear of a man is physically imposing as a soldier. The juxtaposition of the fragile man within is tenderly conveyed avoiding melodrama. For me, Cooper emotionally hits each note in tune. We never see him cry his eyes out, or give this big speech telling us all how he feels inside. We see him react – and with Cooper, in AMERICAN SNIPER, that’s more than enough.
CLINT EASTWOOD’s decision to have us feel and participate WITH Cooper’s performance really holds this movie together. Eastwood chooses realism over entertainment. He trusts his audience, like he trusts his actors. He boldly decides to not hold are hand with exposition. We know the story is real, we feel like the performances are real, we feel each moment of war and each moment of drama. AMERICAN SNIPER is Eastwood’s best picture since UNFORGIVEN. I know that’s a big statement, but hear me out…
The storytelling is worth commenting on. The movie begins “over there”. Kyle looks down his scope. He spots civilians. A woman. A child. And an explosive device. They approach an advancing vehicle surrounded with marching American soldiers. Kyle has a moral dilemma. A choice he must weigh carefully. As his finger edges for the trigger, we transition with the extremely jarring gunshot sound from the past. We instantly jump-cut to 20 years ago or so, when Kyle was a kid learning to hunt with his father.
This method of transition jerks us from past to present throughout the movie. The result is (much like Kyle) we never feel safe. Anything can happen. While this stylistic method may confuse some viewers, I feel like it allows the movie to jump in and out of the most important moments in Kyle’s life to great effect. The movie leads us through many years and many tours of duty. Each time he goes to battle, he leaves behind his family, and (we conclude) a piece of himself.
Story wise it must be hard to condense a man’s life into a feature film runtime. It’s not like a book where you take 12 hours of content and squeeze into 2. It’s 30-some years of this guy’s life that needs to be whittled down to the most impactful moments. I feel like the writer achieved this balance of focusing on personal life & emotional drama, with the effects of war & acts of violence.
In order to make a clear goal for the audience, the writer sets up a mini-story for us to follow with its own beginning, middle, and end. I really enjoyed the dueling snipers storyline. Don’t worry, I’ll avoid spoilers here. We already know Kyle is a world-class sniper, a living legend amongst his comrades, but the enemy has its own legend – an Olympian.
Both sides promote the story of their deadliest snipers to encourage bravery in there foot-soldiers. An angel watches their backs, so to speak. Eventually, we know there will be a pivotal confrontation between the two. The movie does not disappoint with this storyline. It’s an easy to follow, and easy to understand mini-story with its own set of developing goals to pursue.
Aside from the multiple action sequences, the real story is the effects of war on one man. By choosing a legendary soldier, this story shows us that even the bravest hero has doubts and fears and emotions – even the bravest hero returns wounded. By balancing so many angles, SNIPER allows for the regular Joe to understand war and its effects. It allows the returned soldier to be introspective. They aren’t alone. For the families of soldiers, they also know they aren’t alone. This movie speaks for all soldiers, even if this is just one man’s journey.
Every soldier and every family must experience a similar tale. Their story is no fiction. Art allows the viewer to understand something that can’t be conveyed by words alone. Art allows us to be transported into another’s life. We can, to some degree, understand and feel what they experienced. Art paints a full picture of our world. For those that live in the world portrayed on this screen, it must be profound to experience another’s story that is so similar to your own.
Kyle’s wife is portrayed here by SIENNA MILLER. I’ve always been a fan of her’s (since LAYER CAKE… hello). She delivers another strong performance, with subtle emotional power. It would have been easy for the actor in this role to go over-the-top. She balances her effort. From her introduction in a bar, to domestic house parties, to multiple phone-calls Miller shows multiple facets of character. She holds the screen each time.
A standout moment was when Kyle calls her from Iraq, during a ride to a mission. She talks to him outside of the hospital, calling about their pregnancy. Their conversation is interrupted by combat. She hears every bit. Horrified. Helpless. Their promising future together hangs in the balance.
I try and steer clear of politics here, so like this movie, if war is right or wrong, I won’t say. But I will say when you go to the movies, you want to be transported. Normally, its a place of respite from the real world. The movies are an escape. We turn on a movie to disappear – to check out for a bit. We just want to be entertained. Plain and simple, right. Have fun. But a movie (art) also affords us that special gift, the opportunity to spend 2 hours in someone else’s shoes. The opportunity for illumination.
You don’t watch AMERICAN SNIPER simply to see some cool action scenes. You watch this to understand what the hell happens when you’re trained to kill. What happens when you’re the best at it. And what happens when that ends. What happens when you return to normal life. What happens when no one cares about what you did. What happens when everything seems trivial. What happens when you can’t help anymore. How do you help others?
One of the best scenes happens Stateside, when a former soldier meets Kyle at the mechanics. Kyle saved him during a battle, even though the soldier lost his leg he says some lose more. (I’ll paraphrase here.) Some lose lives. Some lose something else. Something more…Themselves. The wounded warrior tries to save another. He can recognize the scar tissue of Kyle’s fractured soul.
BRADLEY COOPER earns his nominations. I’ll comment on two standout visual moments void of dialogue: the boiling intensity as he lifts weights; and the sounds of war perforating his world as he stares at a blank television. The best moment (spoiler free) is a simple one. Kyle exhales as he prepares to pull the trigger during a pivotal sequence. It’s the quiet measure of a man contemplating his morals as he prepares to extinguish life. The weight is felt.
Cooper blazes with a quiet inferno, burning up the screen with smoldering intent. We easily empathize with his decision and his position. We don’t do this because of some well-written inspirational speech or something. We feel what he feels because of Cooper’s performance – because of his brilliant conveyance of the invisible internal.
AMERICAN SNIPER doesn’t flinch. It forces us to look through the scope of a soldier trained to kill humans. It forces us to understand how that changes them internally. There’s no doubt soldiers are horrified by the idea of losing their brothers at arms. They took this job because they want to protect, so when they return, SNIPER forces us to consider what these soldiers feel when they can’t protect any more. How can they let go of the war? How can they let go of their brother when they know they are in harm’s way?
Cooper’s character struggles to readjust to normal life, until he finally finds a way to help his brothers in America. However, I got the impression he feels it isn’t enough. Maybe because he could only help the ones he met? If soldiers had more venues for help, perhaps the outcome of this movie would be rather different?
EASTWOOD forces us to re-examine how our countries nurture returning soldiers. More needs to be done. I feel like on one hand, Eastwood simply tells us war is bad, but soldiers aren’t. Those that sacrifice their lives to tip the scales should be greatly rewarded and paraded upon their return home. Those parades shouldn’t ONLY be afforded to their caskets.
What did you think? Was AMERICAN SNIPER one of the better movies of 2014?
Do you feel that movies like this are exploitive? Do they enforce some sort of political agenda?
Or do movies like this illuminate our understanding?
What do you think of recent controversies surrounding this film? Did the movie gloss over some negative character attributes?
What was the overall message to this movie? Am I correct in assuming its focus is on rehabilitating returning soldiers?
Or was this simply the story of a man at war?