Clint Eastwood‘s American Sniper is a first-rate visceral combat flick — definitely a ride and a half in that respect — with a slight melancholy undertow and a not-so-hot domestic subplot. The several Iraq War combat sequences are major heartbeat accelerators — nervy, rousing, exquisitely shot and cut — and yet, oddly, Sniper never quite lifts off the pad. Well, it lifts off but then it comes back down. Up, down, steady as she goes, less up, down, up again. There’s something a bit rote and at times even flat about portions of it, and that means, no offense, that altogether Sniper is not quite blue ribbon. But it’s certainly good enough if you adjust your expectations and you’re not expecting something, you know, Oscar-baity.
I live in West Hollywood and TheWrap‘s Steve Pond lives a little northeast, about two miles away, but I can nonetheless hear him right now, telepathically if you will, the sound of his keyboard-tappings and his mildly disappointed thought streams…”It’s good but it’s not The One…Academy people are looking for deliverance, for The One, for the big bountiful year-end payoff…and this is just a very good film and in fact one of Clint’s best of the 21st Century. But a hot award-season banana it’s not.”
Sniper is basically one of those “our man grew up this way and then he met this girl and joined the military after 9/11 and then this happened and that happened” films. The subject is a guy — the late, legendary Navy Seal sniper Chris Kyle— who lived quite large in a sense, which is to say mythically by killing 160 enemy combatants during his four tours in Iraq. It tells an intriguing and at times suspenseful tale but not my idea of a great one, and while it ends on a tragic note it doesn’t deliver anything you could call a knockout finish — it doesn’t hit you on the side of the head like a waffle iron, which is how I felt at the end of Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby.
But it’s solidly assembled and restrained and unfettered and Clint Reborn as far as it goes — his best work since Letters From Iwo Jima. There are only two things about it that drove me nuts, and that’s not bad considering my contrarian nature.
Sniper is reminiscent of The Hurt Locker (although it feels a hair or two short of the tingly existential tension of that Best Picture winner), but as far as it goes and for what it sets out to accomplish, which is basically to deliver a straight-from-the-shoulder, no-frills portrayal of Kyle’s short life (he was shot to death in February 2013 at the age of 38) and especially his jolting, tooth-grinding Iraq War combat experiences, American Sniper works. It’s honest and clean and never dull, and two-thirds of the time it delivers the most intense and unsettling combat footage seen in a long while, particularly a third-act battle sequence that ends with the arrival of a massive dust storm.
But the other side of the film, the domestic stuff with Kyle’s wife, played by Sienna Miller, is more or less a replay of Jeremy Renner‘s stateside gloom scenes in The Hurt Locker, a side-story that repeats familiar observations about guys like Kyle (very convincingly portrayed by a bulked-up, bordering-on-fat Bradley Cooper) being naturally drawn to marriage and kids like anyone else, and yet their identity and ecstasy and sense of righteousness are entirely about combat and the finely tuned consciousness of that arena and that calling, and that whole living-precariously-on-the-razor’s-edge thing, the waiting and the concentration, the next shot and then the next, being hard and dutiful enough to drop anyone who’s with the bad guys, including the occasional kid with a grenade.
It’s a good film, a worthy film, a respectable film. Just not an Oscar champ. And that’s fine.
One thing I couldn’t get past is an Act Two scene in which Miller is speaking on the phone with Cooper as fighting suddenly breaks out, and Miller, naturally alarmed, gets more and more riled and as she cries out to Cooper, asking him what’s going on and is he okay and so on (“Baby? Baby?”). She knows, of course, that he lives to shoot guys, and that firefights are not exactly an exotic experience in Iraq. So why does she freak out so much? Is she hoping he’ll get back on the line and say, “Hi, baby…yeah, yeah, I know…they’re shooting at us now…but don’t worry! Anyway, I can’t really talk right now, okay? I might get, you know, killed if I don’t defend myself so if it’s cool I’ll call you back later. I’ll be okay, sweetheart. I just have to put this phone down and focus on killing the enemy, baby. You understand, right? It’s not that I don’t love you or want to talk to you. It’s just now is not the best time to talk.”
The other thing is a bizarre choice on Eastwood’s part to use an animatronic baby during a couple of scenes in which Cooper and Miller are caring for their infant and talking about this and that. The robotic infant moves its little hands but was obviously made in a shop. What’s so hard about shooting with a real baby? Thousands of movies over the decades have managed this so it can’t be that hard. At the very least Clint could have given us an insert close-up or two of a real baby’s face.