There is a lot of debate raging recently about the role of military movies in our modern world. Are they propaganda? Or are they a tribute to the men and women who have risked their lives for their country? The film to spark this debate was Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, the true story of the most successful sniper in American history, Chris Kyle. Eastwood’s film follows Kyle throughout his military career, including the hunt for infamous Iraqi sniper Mustafa.
Despite the debate, the film is surprisingly balanced in its approach to depicting war both as a brave and selfless act and also in showing the darker side of war including the violence, horror and psychological effects on soldiers. Of course, as an American film, this perspective is decidedly swayed towards depicting the American cause, but the balance between depictions of Iraqi people, their plight and motivations is also varied, if not always well fleshed out.
The film presents Kyle, and so the audience, with some very complex issues of war. These issues are presented without a clear right or wrong answer and leave you with niggling worries about the morality of war and thoughts of how you would handle the horrible situations these soldiers are put in. But these thoughts are your own to explore, because the film never does anything more than present them without any exploration.
The much larger issues with the film come from its scripting and occasionally from its direction. These two factors frequently coalesce to create a tenuously plodding narrative, moving from event to event without giving the audience time to really connect with the characters or the pathos. Consequently, the film is often without tension or emotional payoff.
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The standout element of the film is Bradley Cooper’s portrayal of Chris Kyle and Sienna Miller’s depiction of his wife, Taya Kyle. Both actors gave excellent performances, often transcending the flaws of the script by giving real and engagingly visceral depictions. Miller in particular deserves recognition for creating a complex and fascinating character from a two-dimensional script.
American Sniper has sparked an important debate, which is really its greatest accomplishment. At best it is a mildly successful war film which presents many ideas, but never really fleshes them out, due to a script more interested in covering ground than achieving anything of substance.