In the final third of the final episode of Futurama’s final season on network television, series protagonist and lovable lunkhead Philip J. Fry composes an opera in the honor of love of his life Leela. Fry is no writer, so while the emotions of his work are clear, the lyrics could use a little work. Exasperated, the Robot Devil climbs onto the stage mid-performance and lets loose this gem: “You can’t just have your characters announce how they feel! That makes me feel angry!” This wonderful little meta-joke could be the best description of the shortcomings of one Clint Eastwood, whose titanic mix of earnestness and lack of subtlety makes his films always walk the razor’s edge of the inspirational above the abyss of the intolerable, always threatening to tumble (this is a man, remember, whose interpretation of trenchant political commentary was having a conversation with an empty chair). Early on in American Sniper, his newest film with its Oscar nominations and dizzying box office success, Chris Kyle comes back from a night at the rodeo to find his girlfriend sleeping with another man. As he disposes of this illicit gentleman caller, the girl comes storming out of their bedroom and yells “I do this for attention! Don’t you get it!?” and American Sniper tumbles.
This is not the first instance of oversharing in the film, directed by Eastwood and written by Jason Hall from the memoir by Kyle as well as Scott McEwan and James Defelice, nor is it the last. It is, however, endemic of many of its problems. A biopic about Kyle (Bradley Cooper), the US Navy Seal sniper with the most confirmed kills on record, American Sniper sets up its tale in the exact manner anyone would expect from an uninspired take on the genre, beginning in the present day during a moment of climactic tension, flashing back for about twenty-five minutes to describe his upbringing and take time for a meet-cute with his eventual wife Taya (Sienna Miller), only to return to that moment and move on from there. As he winds his way through four tours of duty in Iraq, he becomes entangled in a fight to kill or imprison a high ranking al Qaeda official who goes by “The Butcher,” as well as an enemy insurgent sniper who seems to doggedly follow him on all of his missions. On the homefront, Kyle finds the transition to a more traditional father figure trying, while haunting thoughts of the war lurk around every corner.
There has been quite a bit of controversy surrounding the release of American Sniper, whether it be the characterization and treatment of the muslims in the film or questions about the film’s veracity as relates to both the events depicted and Kyle’s character. Of course, people looking for unbiased veracity from a biopic are barking up the wrong tree, and many of these criticisms do not get to the heart of what is so troubling about the film Eastwood has made. There are two central conflicts in American Sniper, the more traditional bad guys of The Butcher and the rival sniper while he is at the war, and his grappling with post traumatic stress disorder whenever he is home. The more conventional enemies feel almost comically tacked on (the sniper a little more tacked on than The Butcher, to be fair), a case of injecting direct villains where they are not needed. The post traumatic stress angle is much more interesting, both in its implications and its execution until the final ten minutes do a yeoman’s effort in undoing it all in order to paint a halo around Kyle’s head before the film’s final scene. The conflicts of American Sniper oscillate between alluring and contrived, and both are presented in the most perfunctory of manners.
It is not all doom and gloom; the most impressive aspect of the film is something that is present for nearly every frame, the performance of Bradley Cooper. Cooper has grown tremendously from his days on Alias and in films like Wet Hot American Summer, fully transforming into the swollen beast of a man that is Chris Kyle. He approaches the role with all the subtlety Eastwood does not, presenting Kyle as a soft-spoken southern gentleman with a distressing penchant for violence that always lurks beneath the surface. He internalizes the stress very well, flinching and jumping at the sound of domestic gunfire at a funeral or the whirring of a lug nut drill of a mechanic. Sienna Miller’s task is noticeably more thankless, but she does manage to forge a character out of the scraps she is given. Additionally, the battle scenes (taken on their own merit without their negative impact on the themes of the film) are presented well and build tension nicely early on. In practice, all this does is make American Sniper more frustrating, as the good will it builds is so thoroughly squandered on both counts.
It is often the case that the final minutes of a biopic are overly congratulating of their subjects. It is rare, though not impossible, for a biopic to be negative toward its subject, but most of these films are intent on going out on top, ostensibly leaving the audience with a smile on their faces. In most cases, such as this year’s The Theory of Everything or Unbroken, these moments are less of a case of switching gears and more of a case of overstating their central themes. American Sniper, though, manages to do both, switching gears to betray its central themes and then overstating that betrayal. The final scenes of this film are as disastrous as they are odd, and could only be more damaging to the film overall if the first two hours had been better. From a quality standpoint it is not worth the attention it has received, but one can understand why, in the politically charged landscape that has surrounded the Iraq war and the reasons for waging it, it has hit a nerve. So many of these biopics (like this,and The Imitation Game and especially Selma) become obfuscated in the factual critiques of them that the zeitgeist loses sight of the quality of the film itself (those looking for pure facts should, after all, consult a documentary and not Bradley Cooper or David Oyelowo). Much like Selma, American Sniper never announces itself as a true story, regardless of the fact that it is. It should be allowed to stand on its own, though in the case of Eastwood’s earnest, often confused bore, that still does not do it many favors.