American Sniper Movie Review – A Book in Movie Form
I was lucky enough to be sent a screener for American Sniper and so I’ve got a chance to share my early thoughts on the movie before it is officially released. Let’s just put it this way, I already have plans to see it again as soon as I can. So it must be pretty good. But the movie begins and ends with its relationship with the book. For good or for bad.
The book – American Sniper
When I first mentioned the book out here, I called Chris Kyle the saddest most lethal sniper ever. And it was appropriate. Because throughout the book it just dripped sadness. Chris’ struggle was constant and deep. And it made it all the more apparent by the fact that he was probably the only one who didn’t see it. Here’s what I said about the book in my opening snippet:
Let me back up. I’ve dropped you into the middle. After Chris Kyle’s four tours in Iraq, he chose to write a book about his time as a SEAL and as a sniper. The book is called American Sniper – and its just a jaw dropping book. Like, slack jawed, what the frick, sort of a book. Constantly I found myself just asking what killing a hundred people in such a hermetically sealed sort of a way would do to a human’s soul.
Chris details kill after kill after kill. At one point he told the story of killing two militants on a single moped. They had an AK-47 with them as they were zipping towards the latest engagement. Christ thought better of their plan and killed them both with one shot. Or the time he killed a child. I really can’t do any better than my initial review of the book so I’ll just let that post speak for itself:
His book reads something like this: We were on a roof, supporting the troop movements of 40 guys through the city streets of Fallujah as they swept a sector. I saw one guy with an rifle approaching from the west and I took him down. We noted the kills and then swiveled around and saw two more guys on opposing sides of the street with AK-47s lying in wait for our troops. Two minutes later, two more guys were down and we started taking fire at that point from many different directions. It is really that sanitized. I’m not making this up. I shot this guy in the face. Then I filled out some paperwork. Afterwards, I got pulled from the front because it was an unconfirmed kill that needed to be reviewed before I got the clearance to go back to the front. But I just decided to let the lawyers fight, because I just didn’t care, and they didn’t get it.
Kyle’s very first long-range kill shot was taken during the initial invasion of Iraq. Chris killed a woman carrying a hand grenade as she was approaching a group of Marines. After getting clearance he killed the woman before she could attack. And get this, afterwards he stated that “the woman was already dead. I was just making sure she didn’t take any Marines with her.”
There is so much pain under these words. The reader of the book has become Chris’ counselor almost. He is dumping kill after kill after kill in a session with you and he continues to say over and over again… “I’m aiight. I just wish I could do more.”
The movie – American Sniper
Which is where we get to the movie. Because that is where the heart and soul of the movie resides. It begins and ends right there. The struggle for Chris and his lack of awareness of the struggle. We needed a hero, but what we don’t understand is that this hero-ness that we have requested Chris to take on for us comes with a massive price for him personally. A price for his young family. A price for his own soul and peace of mind. A price for his friendships and his life.
The movie is the book. Clint Eastwood has always been a literalist when it comes to movie making. I read that, I shoot this. Right? At least for me, he has always been a pretty straightforward movie maker. That isn’t a bad thing. Actually, quite the opposite. If the source material is good (and boy is it good here) then Eastwood is your guy. Let him just mimeograph that sucker and get it on the screen. Which is what I think he’s done.
Where the movie skews away from the book is on one very specific detail. The bureaucracy. There is only one slight mention of the red tape in the movie. Chris was back off the front lines and was asked about a complaint from a mother on a particular kill. The mother was claiming that the son was holding a book. Chris’ response was, “Sure, if that book was made of pressed metal in the shape of an AK.” And then they let him go back to the front. The book makes it way more clear that he was regularly stopped or pulled from the line because of an unclear kill. As he was lining up his kills it was normal for him to get clearance and make sure his spotter backed him up on the shot.
The paperwork after every shot was huge. All of the details that went on behind the scenes to make a single shot happen were glazed over. Which makes sense. A movie about an accountant wouldn’t be much fun. And in between shots that is essentially what Chris was, a paper pushing, form filling, bureaucrat. Unfortunately. He only got credit for his 160 kills that were properly documented. The other 60 or so that weren’t didn’t make it to his official record. So that is a huge difference between the book and the movie.
But if you are going to focus on one specific thing from the book to remake in the movie, Eastwood chose well. To focus in on the way in which this life shattered Chris was perfect. And yet, doing so without telemarking it. Which brings me to Bradley Cooper’s performance. When I initially read American Sniper Chris Kyle was still alive and active promoting his book. So I had seen him do a number of interviews and was a very well known quantity to me. Then to see Bradley Cooper pick up the mantel was nothing short of a thing of beauty. How do you tell the story of what is going on in this guys mind by saying nothing at all? It’s all eyes. Cooper nailed Kyle’s eyes.
Cooper also played well off of his on screen wife and supporting actress, Sienna Miller. Most of the intense emotion of this movie came from her. Whether she was on the phone, or in person between tours it was all on Miller’s shoulders to carry the gravitas of this movie. To show us what was happening, because it definitely wasn’t going to become clear what the toll was by watching what Bradley was showing us. And Sienna Miller did a fantastic job. An odd choice for this role, being British, but she definitely carried the scenes she was in and hit her marks emotively and she was pitch perfect all the way to the end.
Which brings me to the movie ending that obviously isn’t in the book. It is the one part of the movie that feels utterly bolted on. I personally didn’t care for it at all. But for someone who hasn’t read the book I would guess that it might be alright? I did appreciate the way that they showed pieces of his funeral procession and the people that came out to support a national hero like Chris. Showed America’s appreciation for the enormous debt that Chris and his wife carried on their own throughout his 4 tours and afterwards. It was a fitting end.
American Sniper Movie Consensus
American Sniper will have a very hard time at the Oscars with its liberal judges. The movie tells the story of the grim reaper in a war that many did not believe we should have been involved with after all. There wasn’t anything extraordinary happening here from a movie making perspective. The cinematography was good. But not stellar. The sound design was good. I can’t remember the score to save my life. There were only a few special effects shots that stood out to me, and they were poor in that they stood out. And yet, Bradley Cooper should definitely be in the hunt for an Oscar with this performance. I think Selma will definitely ring American Sniper’s bell more than once at the coming Oscars just because the material is so much more appealing to that crowd.
And yet, if the Oscar voters actually watch this entry, and see just how painful and soul rending it is to deliver this pile of death, they should see it as a vote against war, death and the need for a hero like this. I personally see it as a very sad indictment, not a glorification of, our engagement in Iraq. Definitely.
But this movie is more than its details and awards potential. The whole of its parts combine together to make a really fine retelling of Chris Kyle’s book and his life. The pathos and passion of this movie is just intense. And while the action was much less than movies like Fury, Black Hawk Down, etc, the intensity was at a whole different level because of the truth that was brought to the screen by Eastwood. It is a slow boil of a movie. The intensity sits just under the surface, raging out in the quiet of Kyle’s face, conveyed by Cooper’s troubled and ever-shifting eyes.
Brad Pitt’s movie Fury was a ham-fisted Guy Movie Night outing. Nothing more. American Sniper is an emotional rat’s nest of chaos and mental conflict.
The movie American Sniper is just a sad sad topic. That we need someone like Chris Kyle is ultimately a depressing thought. That men died when he left the front that only he could have saved weighed very very heavy on Kyle’s heart. But he was also caught up in the hunt for the most kills in American history. It is never mentioned overtly as Chris’ goal, but he couldn’t have been unaware of history or the rare opportunity he had. I am conflicted about the book and the movie. I’m conflicted about the cost of these wars. And ultimately I think that is why this movie succeeded because I haven’t stopped thinking about the sadness of war and our place in the world today. Which, even though the movie isn’t the greatest movie created, is what makes this movie truly great. I haven’t seen a movie this honest and this intense in a good long while.