I believe that this is the first Oscar-nominated film that I’ve ever reviewed for this column. This week, I went to the cinema to watch the new Bradley Cooper movie: American Sniper.
Full disclosure: The movie is divisive and controversial for a number of reasons (more on that later). I should say that I’m going to be as objective as I can for most of the review before giving my more personal opinions. That being said, they are just personal opinions, I don’t mean to disparage or disrespect any veterans or active duty members.
American Sniper is based on the 2012 memoirs of United States Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle (played here by Bradley Cooper). Now, when I watch Biopics, I usually try to treat them as entirely fictional departures. Not just because they take liberties with things (not to disparage the dead, but Kyle was sort of infamous for making things up and heavily exaggerating his deeds), but because nobody’s real life follows an arc or a narrative structure. So I’m going to treat this as a fiction film, not as a documentary.
First off, Bradley Cooper deserves his praise. I wasn’t exactly a fan of Silver Linings Playbook (partially because I don’t believe that Jennifer Lawrence has talent), but I thought he was at least decent in it. But the more I thought about it, I realized that I don’t believe that he’s done a lot of good movies. Sure, people enjoyed Limitless, The Hangover(s), and The A-Team- but it’s like McDonald’s. You can like it, but it’s still not good.
Out of the films he’s done that have been well received, I think I’d say that he deserves praise for really only The Midnight Meat Train (not a gay porn film, I promise). Some people disagree, but I thought he was enjoyable as Rocket Racoon in Guardians of the Galaxy– but was vastly overshadowed by the likes of Chris Pratt, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Lee Pace, and Michael Rooker.
Bradley Cooper delivers both an intense and humanistic performance as Chris Kyle, and I think definitely shines under the direction of Clint Eastwood. I think that even when Hereafter and J Edgar are his worst directed films, he’s still a phenomenal director (I’ve already gushed about Unforgiven). Chris Kyle is also a very Eastwood character (despite being a real human being). He’s dark, conflicted, frayed, yet searching for redemption.
Now, I’m not quite sure whether these are admirable qualities or faults of the film- but American Sniper is very wandering and wishy-washy. Now, like I just said- people’s lives don’t normally ascribe to a nice, neat narrative arc. And if it were handled well enough to make me believe that it were intentional, I might praise it for that. But the plot and theme is all sort of all over the place- which is normally par for the course with biopics, but this got beyond the normal fare. It also doesn’t really ever take a stance on Kyle. The film offers depiction with really no judgement. They show Kyle as just a dude, not some inspirational hammed-up hero, not this darker “wow, maybe we shouldn’t like him” like Sgt. James from The Hurt Locker (which is, in my opinion, the best modern war film and an almost perfect one at that).
While I do appreciate the almost impartial depiction, I’m not sure that it was done for the sake of objectivity. There have been plenty of controversial statements made about the movie (and Kyle himself) from known inflammatories like Michael Moore and Bill Maher, and I have to assume that Eastwood expected that. And some of the non-critical/non-endorsement might be to try and avoid a lot of that.
Things I liked about it: Bradley Cooper’s Oscar-worthy passionate performance, Clint Eastwood’s direction.
Things I disliked about it: GAH! PLASTIC ROBOTIC BABY!
Seriously, why a fake animatronic baby instead of a real one?
Should you go see it? This is actually a harder question for me. While I think that it is a very good film, I didn’t actually enjoy it. It’s like the opposite of the McDonald’s principle up top, which I’ll call the “Sushi Principle.” It may be good, and have a lot of talented people putting quality work into it, but I just won’t enjoy the taste.
Be sure to check out my other column Trope-ic Thunder, where I discuss science tropes in the media.
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