“I’m looking for warriors”
A lot of hooplah surrounded American Sniper upon its release. Applauded by many critics, it was nominated for no less than six Academy Awards. The opposing opinions about the films centred on its depiction of the Iraq War as a simple good vs evil battle, and the depiction of the Iraqis as mindless savages. Of course, there will always be those who grunt about the differences from the book in any film adaptation, but there are far too many differences from the book to count in the film of American Sniper. After watching it, it’s hard to understand why it attained so many plaudits. It’s also easy to understand why people saw it as a simplistic version of the Iraq War favouring American patriotism instead of the real issues behind the war.
First and foremost, American Sniper is nothing special. It’s the story of the greatest sniper of US military history, Chris Kyle, who served in the Iraq War. We see snippets of his childhood, snippets of his Navy SEAL training, snippets of his family life, and long periods of war scenes. For a war film, it is rather dull to watch. One of the only scenes with a modicum of tension is the opening scene, where Kyle targets an Iraqi child holding a grenade. But the tension is sliced in half as the film cuts to child Kyle, shooting deer with his father. “You’re gonna make a fine hunter,” his father comments, in overt foreshadowing of his son’s profession. In fact, the film struggles to achieve tension that it reverts back to Kyle targeting another child towards the end of the film. However, by then it’s a case of ‘seen it all before.’ Thematically, the first child is his first kill, so the second child (who he doesn’t kill) is a throwback to that scene. But even understanding the reasoning for the scene doesn’t elevate it at all. The battle scenes are well-shot, but nothing more than that.
“You’re my hero, bro”
The story quickly descends into ‘Enemy At The Gates’ with Chris Kyle against Mustafa, a bland villain who’s picking off Kyle’s squad buddies. Mustafa barely utters a word, and may as well be a robot holding a sniper rifle. The other major villain, the Butcher (not mentioned in the book), likes to drill holes in children’s heads. Nice! That’s pretty much all we get to know about him before Kyle single-handedly takes out the van the Butcher is riding in. Both villains are only there to give Kyle (and the audience) the faces of the enemy, rather than hordes of ‘savage’ Iraqis (I lost count how many time the word ‘savage’ was used in connection to the Iraqi people. It left a bad taste in the mouth). However, Mustafa fails to arouse any emotion but boredom, and the Butcher arouses disgust for a few minutes until Kyle takes him out. We only see the war through the eyes of Kyle, where it was a simple good vs evil battle to rid the world of ‘savages.’ There’s no nuance here at all.
With tensionless battle scenes and poor villains, it’s up to the main characters to involve people in the film. Apart from Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) and Taya Kyle (Sienna Miller), no other character is important. One of Kyle’s buddies, nicknamed Biggles, is shot by Mustafa. However, the scene prior to that was the first scene to establish the friendship between Kyle and Biggles (to be honest, I did not even pick out Biggle’s name until that scene…). During the scene, Biggles asks Kyle to be his best man. It screams out that something is going to happen to Biggles! Taya, whilst still an important part, is relegated to screaming down a phone as Kyle rings her at the most inconvenient times i.e. in battle. So it’s left to Cooper to carry the film.
“I’m ready to come home”
Bradley Cooper certainly looks the part. Kyle’s main goal is to protect his country (although not in the film, Kyle writes in the book that his three main priorities are God, Country and Family…but he’s not sure about the order of the latter two). Of course, his patriotism clashes with the fact that he has a wife and two kids. As his time in the army goes on, Kyle becomes more and more distant from his family. It’s the most absorbing part of the film, as Kyle chooses country over family time and time again. Unfortunately, it is under-played, and totally ruined after Kyle decides to quit the SEALs and rejoin his family. He reintegrates into his family as if he’s never been absent, which dilutes the entire character arc. His ‘redemption,’ if one can call it that, is so easily achieved that it actually achieves nothing in the eyes of the audience (not only that, but he seems to focus more on helping veterans than trying to love his family!).
American Sniper was a hugely popular film, so who am I to disagree with the masses? Perhaps they wanted a throwback to 1980s action films where war against an enemy of America was painted as a black and white issue. It was a time where subtlety and nuance with literally blown away by bigger and bigger explosions. Cooper is burly enough to have been plucked straight from a 80s film. He takes out enough enemies by himself to qualify as a 1980s action hero. But even looked at through these lenses, American Sniper is a disappointment. The action is lukewarm, there are very few quips, and it goes on for far too long. There are very few good things about American Sniper. Or maybe I just don’t like having any form of patriotism shoved in my face.
VERDICT: 4/10. Below average war movie, below average characters, below average action movie, below average movie.