Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Jake McDorman
Running time: 133 minutes
There were a number of raised eyebrows this week when American Sniper was surprisingly nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, but this was nothing to the disbelief I personally felt with regard to Jake Gyllenhaal being snubbed in the Best Actor category for the inclusion of Bradley Cooper, starring in a film that had received little precursory hype in England; it crept up on us, it came out of nowhere. I now understand the considerable accolades this film has received, and it deserves to be the centre of attention right now.
Bradley Cooper, in his portrayal of Chris Kyle, the most glorified sniper in US army history with over 160 confirmed kills to his name, grabs you by the scruff of the neck and drags you through the Iraqi warzone with him. We follow Kyle’s journey from childhood to ‘the Devil of Ramadi’, from protecting his brother from bullies, to protecting his comrades from insurgents, from the bachelor to loving husband and father. The exploration of the depths of this character, on both the parts of Cooper and Clint Eastwood as director, are key to the scenes of nerve-shredding tension. Without the intimate connection we feel to this hero, they would not command anywhere near as much power. The inadvertent showdown between a young boy wielding an RPG and Chris’s well trained gun will have you throwing aside your popcorn and whatever fluorescent ice abomination you unadvisedly decided upon in order to cover your eyes and shield yourself from the conflict.
This is bare bones, no frills attached film-making. It is clear that Eastwood seeks to provide us with the true nature of combat in the Middle East, illustrating the military precision and efficiency of the US army’s operations. The action is not over-dramatized – there are no cheesy lines and no musical crescendos. In fact the score is almost non-existent; instead we are surrounded by gun fire and explosions, we are submerged right into the middle of the action.
However, for those who watch the trailer and think this to be just another shallow, all-action gore fest, I am very pleased to inform otherwise. The Band of Brothers-like camaraderie is genuinely heart-warming and poignant; through his relationships with his comrades, we clearly see Chris’ motivations for going to war – he seeks only to protect the lives of others. The most powerful aspect of this film is not the dramatic action sequences, but the bitter struggle between the warzone and the home life. His long-suffering wife Taya, played by the utterly fantastic Sienna Miller, observes that he never truly returns from each tour – his mind is still in Iraq and in his heart he is still fighting alongside the troops. For the first time I appreciated how difficult it must be for families to watch their loved ones go off for nine months at a time to fight in a war; the reunions between Chris and Taya are so emotive, and the relief is palpable. While unsurprisingly the standout performance comes from Cooper, Miller delivers a performance that rivals it; Taya is by no means a passive character and her grief-stricken solitude is incredible moving.
Admittedly, the climactic action sequence does not feel that climactic – the action is very evenly split up between the four tours of duty that provide most of the structure to the film, and while this helps to make the film incredibly engaging, the payoff is a certain predictability. Perhaps the weakest point of the film is the rivalry between Chris and his Syrian counterpart, an Olympic gold medal-winning sniper, which is not overly compelling. The conflict between the two of them is never very intimate and lost amidst the other turmoil and action. It is difficult with a film of this nature to create a villain that truly captures the imagination, given that Eastwood attempts to portray the events of Chris’ life accurately, but while the menace of the Syrian sniper never truly comes to fore, the actions of an al-Qaeda leader, known as the Butcher, will leave audiences sickened.
American Sniper is a brilliant representation of war in the Middle East; it contains the overtones of heroism and loss that all great war films require, while maintaining an honesty that I felt was missing from The Hurt Locker. This also proves to be a welcome return to form for Eastwood after a string of box office flops, while Bradley Cooper’s transformation into a patriotic but shell-shocked and war torn individual is deeply impressive.