Random Loot is a series in which I get to focus on one particular game, movie or even comic, be it relatively old or quite new, and then ramble about it, often going off-course in the process or using it to make a point about something else entirely. This series is far less critical than my reviews or even standard opinion pieces. I’m less concerned with being entirely fair, and more with just presenting my personal views or ideas in a quick, easy format. You’ve been warned.
Director Clint Eastwood and the man who played a talking Racoon Bradley Cooper aim to tell the story of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL often referred to as the most deadly sniper in U.S. history. Using Kyle’s book as a guide this movie bounces through the man’s life and provides a platform for Bradley Cooper to further prove he has what it takes.
Bradley Cooper manages to again prove that he has major acting chops, delivering a subtle and subdued performance that successfully captures the air of the real Chris Kyle, or at least captured as much as we know of him from his public appearances. While he’s come to the fore recently because of his stellar delivery as the voice of Rocket Racoon in Guardians of the Galaxy, for me he successfully proved himself when I watched him in Silver Linings Playbook. The wealth of small detail Cooper brought to the role of Chris Kyle was downright impressive, and it’s clear he studied Kyle as much as possible, as well as bulking up considerably for the role. Cooper also apparently trained in the art of sniping for a while to better grasp what it was o hold a rifle and take a shot, again something which clearly shows.
Ultimately this is less a film about war and conflict, and more about what war and conflict do to a person, a theme obviously explored before but one that remains hugely interesting. This movie is about Chris Kyle the person and what he goes through mentally while becoming one of the world’s deadliest snipers. Much of this isn’t conveyed in speech, though, as it seems the real life Kyle was quite gruff and silent about the turmoil in his head, leaving it to Bradley Cooper to get across his feelings through looks and gestures alone. The prime examples are at a funeral or even at home with his wife in tears; Kyle remains stoic, uttering some words but unable to say more. It’s no fault of the man, and indeed most soldiers I’ve met or talked to react much the same way. I can only imagine how strange it must be to return to a quiet life.
Indeed, this sense of realism carries through to how Kyle and his Seal comrades talk about the enemy which some may find unsettling. To watch this film you need to understand and accept something important; soldiers who are good at their job are good at their job because they like violence or do have a genuine hatred for those they aim to kill. It’s a rush, and many soldiers feel alive in the heat of combat. Kyle refers to the Iraqi insurgents he battles as savages and seemingly has little trouble taking their lives. For some it’s shocking, and that’s stupid. Soldiers are paid killers. That is what they do, and what we ask them to do whenever we sent them into conflict. That’s not to say every life is taken easily; there are moments when Kyle regrets having to put an end to someone’s journey that I won’t spoil, and clearly despite his own claims that he wishes he had killed more of the enemy Kyle’s bodycount does weigh him down to some degree. But what actually affects him far more is the sense that he didn’t save as many lives as he should, not that he took so many. Kyle feels compelled to go back on tour to safeguard more troops, and eventually manages to turn that feeling into helping veterans who are struggling to cope with returning to civilian life. It makes for an interesting character arc as the man morphs from killer to rehabilitator.
Kyle heads out on four tours in total, and finds it hard to be at home with his wife and daughter. Early in the film he’s shown leaving girlfriends in order to go to rodeos. He’s a man only truly alive in danger, a perfect killing machine. He’s always polite, though. Despite his size he’s quiet and lacks that belligerence often associated with the armed forces. There’s also no getting around the fact that Chris Kyle is almost stereotypical and exaggerated in his complete devotion and patriotism. As stated before, this is a movie about Kyle and not about the war in Iraq. Kyle doesn’t question the war or the motivations of those behind it. He doesn’t question what life is like for Iraq people or why some choose to fight. He’s a patriot in an almost painful sense, and if he does question anything it’s never shown here. He is a simple man in many regards. In fact I’d argue that had the this movie not been based upon an actual person it’s highly likely the character of Chris Kyle would have been criticised as being a caricature, an over-the-top representation of a patriotic soldier.
Given his deadly proficiency it isn’t long before the soldiers that he helps protect begin viewing him as a guardian angel, and eventually nickname him The Legend. The Iraqi people have a different title for the man: the Devil of Ramadi, and bestow upon him a hefty bounty. With 160 confirmed kills over a 6-year period it’s easy to understand both titles. He’s a technical genius, and coldly calculating when it comes to his job. It’s no wonder he manages to land a 2,100 yard shot in his career.
The film handles death in a cool way, too. In the opening minutes we witness Kyle’s first kill, a child who is being used by what appears to be his mother to blow up a convoy of American troops. Naturally Kyle is hesitant of taking the shot, but ultimately he does in order to save the lives of his comrades before also shooting the child’s mother, who picks up the explosive and attempts to throw it at the Americans. It’s a brutal opening, but one that sets up the feel of the movie perfectly. The shots and deaths that follow are shown with no flair or sting of music; just a bullet, and a death. Aside from the acting of Bradley Cooper this is a cold opening scene that aims to tell the audience to expect no dwelling upon the death of Iraqi warriors, just as Kyle himself after his first few kills seems not to dwell on it. This is war, and this is what people do in war.
Aspects of Kyle’s life and book are kept out here in order to not muddy the narrative, mostly because nobody is sure of their veracity. Kyle claims to have been hired by Blackwater to snipe armed looters at the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina and that he also got into a barfight with ex-wrestler and ex-governor Jesse Ventura, a man who claims to have been a Navy Seal, though controversy surrounds that. These stories, included in the book, are kept out of the movie’s script and that makes sense. While such detours might have been interesting American Sniper already leaps around too much without further complication being added.
The structure of the film feels chaotic, perhaps fitting given the subject material but often jarring, at least for me. American Sniper plays like a montage of Chris Kyle’s life, and huge leaps in time occur frequently. In the opening minutes we’re given one brief scene of Kyle and his brother as kids receiving a speech from their father about the three types of people in the world, before jumping over a decade ahead to the two lads doing bull riding, and then another leap to Kyle joining the Navy Seals. A later example is how we witness Kyle’s daughter as she is mere weeks old, but then next time we see her she at least a few years old. While it’s understandable that not all of Kyle’s life can be conveyed in the film it does feel a tad jarring to jump so often in time.
It also has the effect of rendering everyone outside of Kyle flat and dull, which in turn can make the deaths of characters, a fact I don’t view as a spoiler given the nature of the movie, feel emotionless. Kyle’s own squadmates, for example, aren’t interesting, not because of their actual personality but because we’re never given time to see that personality. I struggled to remember their names, never a good sign. At times people appear in Kyle’s life with no warning, arriving and joking with the man like they’ve known him for a while, leaving us the audience in the dark. The only constant is Kyle himself, and to a lesser degree his wife. Thus no connections can be formed to the Seal team Kyle fights for, and only a faint one with Kyle’s wife.
At one point there’s even an enemy sniper for Kyle to go up against, a man who appears just as deadly as Bradley Cooper’s character. We see him leap across rooftops and demonstrate his physical conditioning before gunning down soldiers, but that’s about it. The film spends a little time building toward what feels like an inevitable battle between Kyle and this mirror image, but it never really happens. It’s a little anti-climatic, and the enemy sniper is never granted any time to become anything other than a generic baddie and the actual face-off is disappointing. After the film ended I wondered why he was even included as his presence did little for the movie. The previous central “bad-guy” for lack of a better term was also pretty lackluster, a man who had a penchant for dealing with folk he disliked by drilling into them with a hand drill and was thus understandably named the Butcher. Definitely villain behavior, but he was nonetheless almost instantly forgettable. I suppose the truth is a film like this doesn’t need central bad guys that need to be deal with and so there fleeting and forgettable presence isn’t a huge problem, but the film could have done better by taking them out and using the time for something else, or by giving them more time to become actual people.
Ultimately its how this story it told that will leave opinions split. This isn’t a film which examines Chris Kyle from an outside perspective or that carefully dissects his book and the claims he makes within. Instead director Eastwood has opted to essentially reprint the legend, and in doing so has also chosen to keep the focus tight, to keep the Iraqis as faceless enemies and the politics of the war far off in the distance in favor of giving Kyle’s perspective. The enemy sniper is a prime example, an opportunity to present a mirror of Kyle, but one never taken. It’s slightly surprising given how Eastwood has tackled previous topics. I expected a more questioning movie, one which perhaps both tackled the man himself, the myth and the complex ethics. But then, maybe that would have been too much for one film. Maybe there was just room for one or the other.
It’s all shot well enough but there’s nothing to write home about. It’s simple stuff with a gritty attitude and just about every other standard adjective one could use to describe films set in Iraq and focusing on war. However it has to be said that the simple shooting style works with the nature of the film, again reminding us that there’s nothing pretty about war.
As a movie there’s not actually a lot special about American Sniper. It says nothing that hasn’t been said before. Kyle himself is actually a pretty straightforward and uncomplicated guy. The movie is shot well, but the writing and constant jumping made it hard to get fully immersed into the film and the life of the man it was dedicated to. Yet despite this the journey of Kyle himself, regardless of the truth or the actual real man, is a fascinating one, and that makes this a movie well worth watching, albeit not one deserving of an Oscar. Despite him, admire him or love him, Chris Kyle is intriguing.
Categories: Opinion Piece