In my review for Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys from earlier this year, I noted that the director didn’t really seem to be interested in doing anything worthwhile for his pictures, and it seemed like he was directing more as a way to keep busy rather than convey any artistic vision. But Jersey Boys looks like it’s bursting with imagination compared to the hollow, thoughtless American Sniper. The real story of U.S. Navy Seal sniper Chris Kyle doesn’t question the moral cost of what it means to kill well over one hundred people one-by-one. It’s not even that the movie lacks nuance as much as it lacks just about everything short of star Bradley Cooper giving it his all for a soldier he deeply admired. Eastwood doesn’t share even an ounce of that passion as he turns in a movie that couldn’t even charitably be described as workmanlike as it talks down to its audience and yet almost consciously avoids saying anything at all.
After watching the events of 9/11 on TV, the noble, charming, intelligent, amazing Chris Kyle (Cooper) joins the Navy SEALs, and goes to Iraq to serve as a sniper. His sharpshooting skills, attention to detail, and quick thinking earn him the nickname “Legend” as he continues to rack up kills, which includes women and children. Kyle isn’t a monster, and these deaths do weigh on him, although never in any specific way. In between tours, he has brief episodes of PTSD like being startled by loud noises, but that’s all that really unsettles him. He’s also at odds with his wife Taya (Sienna Miller), whose sole purpose is to be upset that he’s off fighting in Iraq rather than staying at home and helping raise their kids.
Imagine The Hurt Locker without the nuance, pathos, and insight, and you’ll be close to what Eastwood has coughed up here. Like Hurt Locker, American Sniper is apolitical, which is fine, except it’s also amoral, thoughtless, and slothful in almost every conceivable way. The only weight comes from the painfully heavy-handed celebration of Kyle’s greatness and personal sacrifice. Like all boring protagonists, Kyle’s biggest weakness is he just cares too damn much.
All biopics have a level of embellishment, but Kyle is depicted as an American saint. When he gets the call to deploy to Iraq, it comes in the middle of his wedding celebration, and whether or not that actually happened, it doesn’t play as real. Eastwood may as well have given Kyle the call in the middle of the vows, had him turn directly to the camera and say into the phone in a total deadpan, “I do.” The bad guys even have their own handsome sniper, “Mustafa” (Sammy Sheik), who becomes Kyle’s nemesis. This is a Chuck Norris movie with all of the jingoism and xenophobia but minus the campy fun.
What does it mean to kill 160 people and have that as your legacy? Yes, he killed these people to protect his fellow soldiers, and he never boasts about it, but what makes Kyle special beyond a number? And why did Kyle feel compelled to keep going back beyond just being such a good guy who cared so much about his brothers in arms? Eastwood is completely uninterested in exploring these questions or doing anything more than setting down the camera, letting the scene play out, and then breaking for lunch.
Steven Spielberg was attached to direct American Sniper before Eastwood, and I continue to wonder how he would have approached this material. I assume it would have started by giving a damn. Spielberg has been directing movies for as long as Eastwood, and directed more films, but Spielberg continues to care about his craft. He looks for new challenges and won’t move forward on a project if he doesn’t feel the script is right. Meanwhile, I continue to wonder why Eastwood directs movies when he steadfastly refuses to give them a personality.
I honestly have no idea why Eastwood bothered to direct American Sniper when he can’t even be bothered to find a believable fake baby. When Kyle is holding his newborn child, the rubber baby looks ridiculous. And we’ve mastered fake newborn baby technology. They’re a standard prop. They’re not expensive. How does a serious director making Hollywood movies look at that take and say, “Yep. Good enough.”
If a journeyman director like John Moore or Len Wiseman helmed American Sniper, it wouldn’t be awards fare. No one would bother to take it seriously. Eastwood carries with him a directing pedigree he should have lost by now. When it comes to American Sniper and all of his films for the foreseeable future, Clint Eastwood fires blindly and shrugs about missing the mark. Audiences should demand a director who cares about every shot he takes.