Sniper

We know more about the horrors of war than any previous generation. Where once recounts of what happens “over there” took months and years to come to light, now we learn of it almost instantaneously. The veil has been drawn back, and we all know just what we are doing to our planet, our opponents, and the soldiers who fight on our behalf. With that knowledge comes a responsibility; a responsibility that when we look to these conflicts as inspiration for art that the end result come with the utmost respect and artistic skill.

To do any less flies in the face of the knowledge we have that our ancestors did not, and to do any less disrespects the soldiers whose tales we are telling.

AMERICAN SNIPER is the story of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper). From an early age, Chris shows both a knack for marksmanship, and a desire to protect those who cannot protect themselves. However, as he grows into adulthood, he reaches his thirtieth birthday without having found his life’s purpose. However, after seeing the news of the American embassy attacks in Kenya and Tanzania, Chris believes he’s found his calling and enlists in the American military – specifically, training to be a Navy SEAL.

Despite being ten years older than most of his fellow recruits, Chris passes the rigorous training, and parlays his marksmanship skills into a role as a sniper. It’s during his training that he meets a lovely lady named Taya (Sienna Miller). Despite having misgivings about getting involved with a SEAL, something about Chris catches her eye and she starts seeing him anyway. Within short order, Chris earns his stripes, 9/11 happens, Chris and Taya get married, and he is deployed to the middle east to fight the war on terror.

Once there, Chris quickly becomes a known entity. His fellow soldiers nickname him “Legend” for how many enemy combatants he is able to kill – a talent not lost on the enemy as they eventually put a bounty in his head. The drug of war is something Chris soon becomes addicted to, going back into the fray for tour after tour (four in all before he’s finally ready to go home for good).

When he’s home though, things aren’t all bread and roses either since he clearly has problems letting go of things he did and things he saw. Then again, what should we expect when “a legend” tries his hand at everyday life?

 

Sienna Miller in American Sniper

 

In considering a film like AMERICAN SNIPER, one immediately needs to put politics aside. One needs to discard any feelings of the mission or the man, and come to it free of bias. My thoughts on America, The War on Terror, and Chris Kyle specifically are absolutely irrelevant right this moment…all that matters is what I think of this piece of filmmaking. And what I think is this;

AMERICAN SNIPER wants to be an intricate look at PTSD. It wants to show us how the military can pound every ounce of humanity out of a man like Chris Kyle and turn him into a finely tuned instrument of war. It wants us to see that when that same instrument goes home and tries to interact with the rest of us – their spouses, their children, their neighbours – that it’s impossible. However, the film never trusts us enough to see this for ourselves in the scenes with Chris and Taya. It has to spell it out for us with obvious dialogue and playing out the sounds Chris is hearing in his head.

The truth is that just the sight of Chris staring at a TV set that’s turned off would have been enough. But perhaps AMERICAN SNIPER thinks that is too subtle. Perhaps it forgets that with so many soldiers now back home, we are becoming all too aware of the signs and viciousness of PTSD. So it spells it out…repeatedly…just in case we didn’t get it the previous seven times.

Another point in the storytelling where the film dishonours its subject is Taya’s role in this whole film. We never see her except when she is tethered to Chris, we never hear her speak about anything except Chris barring one broad piece of generalization about Navy SEALS when the two first meet (a generalization that proves correct). Sienna Miller is only in this film to provide shock and awe when Chris calls home, and to illustrate sadness and stress when he’s back. We never truly see what she’s going through, what she might be internalizing, or what thoughts she might have on her lot when Chris isn’t around.

The life of a person like Taya Kyle is a deeply difficult one, but AMERICAN SNIPER isn’t interested in having any difficult conversations.

Instead, the film is too busy playing soldier. It wants to sound ominous tones when insurgents walk past, and glorify kill shots with slow-mo bullets cutting through the air. It takes all of the tension out of what should be some incredibly tense moments, and instead broadcasts its intentions with music and expression…all of which stands in stark contrast to the stressful scene that opens the film without a note of score.

Perhaps worst of all, the film classifies the world into wolves, sheep, and sheepdogs, but never pauses to consider that sometimes its the actions of sheepdogs that get the sheep killed. For a man who is supposed to be so shaped by his family and clings to that notion to survive, the concept of his extended family is given only lip service, and dropped right when it can become its most interesting.

As if all of those filmmaking missteps weren’t enough, this movie trips over its own feet in its final moments in a way I dare not elaborate on for those who might still be interested in seeing it. While I understand that real life can sometimes change the outcome of a piece of fiction, that shouldn’t preclude competent execution. What’s more, the real life events that affected the story AMERICAN SNIPER tells happened well before the cameras started rolling, so there’s no excuse to foul that end of the movie up. What might be worst of all is the fact that this moment that AMERICAN SNIPER screws up at its end ties into the most fascinating part of Chris Kyle’s story.

This scene could have given some real nuance to his character, and turned this story into something deeply complicated. But instead of taking aim at a truly poignant and tragic target, it picks up its weapon and goes home.

Matineescore: ★ 1/2 out of ★ ★ ★ ★
What did you think? Please leave comments with your thoughts and reactions on AMERICAN SNIPER.