Rewind the clock back about two months. Fellow writer and film enthusiast Mike Murphy is hiding out in a stall while I wait by the sink of the bathroom at Hollywood’s famous Egyptian Theater. We probably shouldn’t be here, as we were suppose to exit the building ten minutes prior, following the AFI Fest debut screening of “Selma” we had just attended, but if we were to leave the building, we would miss our chances to see the world premiere of Clint Eastwood’s new film, “American Sniper,” and, well, we just couldn’t have that. I tell you this story because I want to be clear; I was very excited for this film, a biopic about Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in American history. The concept immediately grabbed my attention and the trailer featuring a bulked up Bradley Cooper aiming his rifle from the top of a roof, debating on whether or not to kill a little boy carrying an RPG grenade, was heart-pounding. Unfortunately, as Mike and I exited the secret confines of the bathroom and took our seats in the theater, all of our expectations and hopes were shot down.
“American Sniper” should have been a no-brainer. A personal story of a soldier battling the balance between life at home and life at war, something totally in Eastwood’s wheelhouse that is both awards bait and commercial gold. While the film did retain some of the harsh intimacy featured in other post 9/11 war films like “Zero Dark Thirty” or “The Hurt Locker,” it was never a relatable piece and remained emotionally vacant for its 2 hour and 13 minute running time. This was no fault of the acting, as Bradley Cooper provides a particularly lived-in performance as the decorated Navy SEAL. Most of his scene work is quite good, especially in the more delicate moments, like when a dog starts barking at a party, triggering a PTSD-like reaction. Even Sienna Miller, who plays Kyle’s wife in a thankless and regrettably ignored role, gets a few emotionally wrought scenes, but not enough to make a lasting impression.
The real issues lie in the writing and direction. Jason Hall’s screenplay, which is about 80% redundant battle scenes, 15% hollow characters development, and 5% decent moments, is, needless to say, a mess with few redeeming qualities. Hall’s biggest problem is making the story fluid, as most of the film is made up of 5 to 10 minute beats that don’t connect to a larger, over-arching narrative. This is also the guy who wrote last year’s huge flop, “Paranoia,” so I don’t know why I was expecting much. Eastwood, on the other hand, is a seasoned director whose penchant for gung-ho Americanism should have paired well with a story about a man who some call an American hero and others call a ruthless murderer. Though I do applaud Eastwood for recognizing the darker elements to this man’s life, his direction made the story feel almost too small, providing no scope for how this man was viewed by the outside world. Sure, it’s important to recognize the heavy emotional burden each soldier carries, but they choose to hold onto that weight for a reason and in a film haphazardly made up of disconnected instances, that reason is never quite clear.
I may be standing alone with this perception of “American Sniper,” as it did walk away with 6 Oscar Nominations yesterday and I’m sure, based on the marketing and the obvious pull of Eastwood and Cooper, that it will make bank at the box office this weekend, but I can’t help but address the fact that it is a fundamentally flawed movie. It tries to be like other personal war stories, but doesn’t bring anything new to the table and ends up feeling both superfluous and a general waste. To be fair, Cooper does give a tremendous performance in what is otherwise a rather stale film. I will say that this is probably Eastwood’s best in the last few years, but that’s not saying much when you’re talking about films like “Jersey Boys” and “Hereafter”. If you really want to watch a good war film, watch “Saving Private Ryan” or “Jarhead,” as for me, let’s just say I wish I stayed in the bathroom.
Review by Harrison Richlin