Some days you sit down to write a review well aware your efforts may already be as doomed to failure as a would-be Xmas bestseller entitled ‘Alan Shearer: My Wit and Wisdom’.
This could be one of those days.
That’s because a lot of folks seem to have already made up their minds about ‘American Sniper’ based not so much on the movie itself but rather their feelings about its titular figure, real-life Navy SEAL Chris Kyle.
To give a bit of background, Kyle was the most lethal sniper in US military history. The army credits him with 160 confirmed kills; he put the figure around 255. As far as the troops he fought alongside were concerned, he was a hero, awarded the nickname “Legend”. To their insurgent foes, he was the devil incarnate.
Following four tours of Iraq, he retired to his native Texas, where he died in February 2013, murdered along with his friend Chad Littlefield on a firing range.
Now, doling that level of death on behalf of Uncle Sam’s war machine is always liable to split opinion, to put it mildly. And so it’s proved for Kyle, even in the wake of his own demise.
The opposing viewpoints can be summed up pretty succinctly by referring, on the one hand, to the bromantic reverence of Men’s Health…
‘Kyle was… the kind of real-life badass who would practice MMA-style choke outs with his fellow SEALs for fun’
…and, on the other, to the appalled opprobrium of The Guardian…
‘The real American Sniper was a hate-filled killer’
Which kinda begs the question: who was the real Chris Kyle? Supreme technician performing a regrettably macabre duty – the present day equivalent of a public executioner like Robert G. Elliott? Or was he little more than a state-sanctioned serial murderer?
Well, if it’s answers you’re after, young Grasshopper, then you’d be better off seeking them at the bottom of an empty packet of cornflakes than in ‘American Sniper’, such is the dearth of insight delivered by screenwriter Jason Hall and director Clint Eastwood.
An icon of US machismo in his own right, Eastwood is locked into a pronounced slump as a director. Like Woody Allen in the early 2000s, he’s cranking out films faster than ever (his last one, Jersey Boys’, opened just six months ago), with that untrammelled velocity exerting an entirely inverse influence over the quality of his output.
Someone who very few people would accuse of being in any kind of slump at the moment is Clint’s choice of leading man – Bradley Cooper, who has just attracted his third Oscar acting nomination in as many years for his performance as Kyle.
Though that nod from the bods of the Academy is certainly more well-merited than Hall’s recognition in the Best Adapted Screenplay category, in truth it testifies more to Cooper’s willingness to molest his ice cream-shifting prettiness with 40 pounds of added flesh and a shit haircut than it does to a genuinely magnetic screen showing.
Aside from some well-staged and immersive Iraq-set combat scenes, proceedings in ‘American Sniper’ are largely plodding and repetitive. In particular, heavy-handed emphasis is placed on contrasting the action Kyle sees on the frontline with his life back home with wife Taya (Sienna Miller, who really should do a few more interviews to let people know she’s got this and ‘Foxcatcher’ out at the minute).
This gives rise to a few truly heinous scenes; for example, one where the camera roams round Kyle as he stares glassy-eyed at the TV, the sounds of a war movie ringing out around him. Only, when the camera reveals the screen – gasp! – the TV isn’t even on! The sounds! They were in his head!
It’s as subtle as an IED sandwich and every bit as disagreeable.
What’s really disagreeable, though, is the fact Hall and Eastwood seem to be labouring under the delusion they’re making a nuanced statement about the Iraq War, offering up a story not of Manichean oppositions but one subtly traced in varying shades of grey.
In practice, what the message of ‘American Sniper’ actually boils down to is “Oh boy, didn’t the troops sure give their all? But y’know, maybe the war wasn’t actually all that swell an idea to start with”. Exactly the kind of standardised sound-bite, in other words, that you wouldn’t be surprised to hear spewing from the mouth of just about anyone from Nigel Farage to Ronald McDonald.
From either of those clowns, it would be a tired cliché. From one of America’s supposed premier filmmakers, making comment with the benefit of a decade’s perspective on the conflict, it’s nothing less than feeble.
American Sniper is out now in the UK.