I figured the reality of American Sniper's quality would lie somewhere between liberal critics bashing and conservative pundits overpraise and the fact it was nominated for Best Picture meant little because the Oscars are such a mess most years that the Golden Globes were invented to build a credibility floor underneath them. What I found was my suspicions were correct.
For those totally unaware, American Sniper is an adaptation of the autobiography of Chris Kyle, America's most lethal sniper with over 160 credited kills in the Iraq War. It opens with Kyle on the verge of his first kill, a gut-wrenching decision involving a young child and a grenade that may be headed for a squad of Marines he's providing overwatch on. The insane rules of engagement our soldiers faced over there adds another layer of tension as his backup reminds him if he's wrong about his decision, he'll be sent to Leavenworth for murder. Nice work if you can get it.
The movie then jumps back for nearly a half-hour crash course on his life, beginning with his childhood protecting his little brother from bullies to his days as a rodeo rider through his decision to join the Navy SEALs after the twin African embassy bombings in the late Nineties. Along the way he meets, courts and marries Taya (Sienna Miller) with their honeymoon cut short as his squad is activated to go to Iraq after 9/11. Caught up for 25 minutes, we return to where we started and he makes the call.
What follows is a familiar structure of war movies lately. We see the soldier gradually worn down by the horrors of war and what waging it requires of those pulling the triggers alternating with Stateside sequences where they can't connect with their concerned loving families. While American Sniper doesn't make Kyle a thrill jockey unable to function at home like Jeremy Renner's character in The Hurt Locker, there's no mistaking the toll PTSD is taking while his need to protect his men draws him back to Iraq.
While the first half moves swiftly and tautly, the second half dragged somewhat for me as the here-there-rinse-repeat pattern became evident. (FWIW, my girlfriend didn't think it lagged at all.) An overarching plot thread involving an insurgent sniper nicknamed "Mustafa" seems cribbed from dueling sniper movies like Enemy at the Gates. A soldier chattering about buying an engagement ring could be call-signed "Goose" (from Top Gun) or "Dead Meat" (Hot Shots). The climatic battle seems choppy and disjointed compared to the spare urban warfare sequences before it like when Kyle's unit encounters The Butcher (who lives up to his nickname) and Mustafa and the final scene before Kyle's death is as cliche as they come.
The bedrock that American Sniper is built upon is Bradley Cooper's transformative performance, packing on 45 pounds of muscle and a reportedly spot-on Texas accent. It's hard to believe this is the same guy who was the sensitive reporter on Alias and the bullying a-hole from Wedding Crashers. I've always thought that he's been sort of marginalized because he's just so damned handsome (People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive 2011), but as he racks up his third straight Oscar nomination (following Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle) there's no doubt he's more than just blue eyes and a pretty face. (Dammit!) Though the script gives him little more to do than "be a resolute protector" and "be haunted by the killing" he makes the whole movie seem more significant. Miller is good in the thankless role of the Wife Tending The Home Fires. Eastwood's spare direction doesn't attempt to glamorize or demonize war, in fact forgoing a musical score when most directors would crank the Hans Zimmer Bombast Knob to 11.
While it's tempting to lash back at the haters of the Left by praising American Sniper as a instant classic, honesty precludes me from hopping on that bandwagon. While well-made, exceptionally-acted and a story deserving telling, I just couldn't escape the feeling that Standard Hollywood Structure was being applied to the true story. I haven't read the book or followed the biased media ankle-biting over it and the movie, so I don't know how accurate the story is, but movies must stand on their own merits and if this was exactly how it went down, Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall should've found a way to make it seem less familiar and more evocative.
Score: 7/10. Rent the Blu-ray.