A Trip To The Movies – Review: “American Sniper” 1.17.15

Let’s face it Clint Eastwood hasn’t directed a great film in a decade. His last really good film was his 2004 masterpiece – “Million Dollar Baby” which was an absolutely stunning achievement garnering Academy Award nominations in almost every category, including a well deserving Best Actress win for Hilary Swank. This is an especially important thing to highlight because Eastwood’s creative output (a film every other, sometimes twice a year) has been at an all time high during these past 10 years. His back to back War films “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima” (2006) both were failures, both from a cinematic stand point and in terms of box office revenue, and little to next to nobody I know saw either one of them. Then came maybe his best yet still underwhelming year in 2008 with the release of both “Changeling” and “Gran Torino”. Both semi worthwhile efforts despite having their fair share of flaws. 2009 brought us his first collaboration with Matt Damon, the sports drama “Invictus”, an Eastwood effort that I skipped as it didn’t pique my interest in the slightest, that and I’m not particularly a fan of films that cast Damon in the lead role. 2010’s “Hereafter” I too skipped as it was a poorly reviewed film that featured another collaboration between Eastwood and Damon once again in the lead role. The year after he released the J. Edgar Hoover biopic “J. Edgar” (2011) featuring a stand out Leonardo DiCaprio performance in what was an otherwise long, tedious, and boring film. Enter 2014 and Eastwood planned to release another 2 films – the first based on a book about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons called “Jersey Boys” which featured no well-known actors and got mediocre to below average reviews, and basically flew under the radar of just about everyone I know (most people I talk to didn’t even know it was an Eastwood film). This being his latest film, which looked like it had some serious promise after revealing one of the better looking and well constructed trailers I had seen all year. That and the “surprise” Oscar nominations this past Thursday morning recognizing it for both Best Picture and star Bradley Cooper in the Best Actor categories quickly catapulted it from a “I’ll probably see that movie once it comes out in the theater” to a “how quickly can I get to the theater to see it” status. I then bought my advance tickets the night of the announcements, expecting the crowds to look like something similar to that of the newest “Hunger Games” release. All of that aside, I can’t say I had the highest of expectations for it, as it looked like it had the workings to either be a great film, or yet another Eastwood disappointment.

The film introduces us its real life based on a true story character Chris Kyle. A Texas man who spends most of his time at the bull races trying his best to make a living as a cowboy. His then current relationship quickly dissolving and he begins feeling unfulfilled as to where his life is heading. Like most people, he doesn’t seem content on just “being”, and strives to look for something more out of life and for himself (a lesson he is taught at an early age by his father in a flashback dinner scene with both him and his younger brother). Chris decides at a rather late age of thirty to enter the Navy, and in a montage showing him and other recruits going through basic training, it seems like he is tailor-made to be suited for his new calling as he is everything the military represents – he’s a man of high moral value that stands for loyalty, discipline, and dedication to the cause. Not to mention he’s an expert marksman. During one weekend he meets a young woman (played by the increasingly impressive Sienna Miller, who played another high-profile role this past year in Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” as Mark Ruffalo’s wife). They seem like a perfect fit and soon after decide to get married (in one of the first of many great scenes that I thought clearly exemplified a soldier’s loyalty to their cause over that of their own family – a major theme and focus of the story). Chris and his new wife quickly get accustomed to their newly married, domesticated lifestyle, only to have Chris get deployed for his first of four tours. The film then quickly transports us to the Middle East, where we see Chris as a Navy Seal sniper picking away at militants in combat. The camera looking up the barrel of his gun and square into his eyes as he picks off his targets right and left. Chris becomes an almost martyr-like hero to his peers as he continues to save life after life with his expert skills as a sniper. But at what cost will all of this have on Chris’s psyche and even more importantly, will it have on his increasingly distant wife and children, who seem to be deeply affected by Chris’ absence as he goes back and forth between tours in the Middle East and being back stateside with his family.

This is a landmark achievement between director Clint Eastwood and star Bradley Cooper and it turned out to being something much more than I had expected which was a pleasant surprise. There are many things I’d like to point out about this film that I liked, but I’ll try to keep it to just the essentials. First off, it’s an incredible character study with Cooper in his career best performance to date. I thought he was great in “Silver Linings Playbook” (2012) and good in “American Hustle” (2013) (but didn’t think he deserved a Best Supporting Actor nomination). But this film puts him on a new platform as an actor. His restrained, subdued, yet expressive performance is nothing short of amazing. He also put on about 40 pounds of muscle (which looked to be about double that) to play the role, and is almost unrecognizable as his normal baby face appearance is transformed into someone much more tough and rugged. Which is a true testament to Cooper as an actor as you can tell he must have totally immersed himself into the role. Unlike Steve Carell in “Foxcatcher”, despite the transformative physical appearance, there is an undeniable sense of serious acting chops underlying his performance from within. The second thing I wanted to point out is that it feels nothing like a standard Clint Eastwood film, who tends to follow a lot of stereotypical Hollywood movie tropes with his usual lyrical narrative approach to storytelling. There is very little here that resembles that. Though a couple of minor criticisms I had of the piece is that some of the scenes at home felt melodramatic and laid the sentiment on a bit too thick. That and I thought they downplayed the relationship between Chris and his younger brother. Outside of that though I thought it was an incredibly confidently directed and assuredly shot piece of filmmaking, and is both compelling and captivating from start to finish. Which is remarkable given that Eastwood is in his later years and we may only get another film or two out of him until he retires from moviemaking all together. The scenes of Chris during his tours of duty are visceral, gripping, taut, and utterly intense. One could only imagine the difficulty of this shoot as the “sniper scenes” were filmed brilliantly giving the viewer fly on the wall access to the proceedings. Lastly, and what surprised me most, was how it defied my expectations, particularly when it came to how Chris’ heroism is portrayed. I thought at the hands of Eastwood it could have had some serious potential to fall into flag waving American propaganda territory. Had it of been depicted in this way which I honestly thought it might I would have most likely liked it a lot less than I did. But there was nothing even remotely glorifying the Navy Seals and/or military, as many of them including Chris, are faced with difficult ethical and moral decisions in scenes both inside and outside of war that I thought were presented rather deftly by Eastwood and the rest of his writing team. The last thing I thought to be rather profound, that in a fully packed sold out theater, not one person clapped when the house lights came on and the credits rolled. Every person piled out and exited the theater one by one like zombies and it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. I think they like me, were so moved by the experience of what they had just seen, that they had a hard time coming up with much of anything to say. Which is why you’ll always hear me encouraging people to see movies at the theater or cinema, as it truly is one of the few last remaining communions we have. A place where a group of people can have a collectively shared, present moment experience. And this was another perfect example of that. Ladies and gentleman, even at the tender ripe young age of 84, Clint Eastwood is back.

[B+]

4 thoughts on “A Trip To The Movies – Review: “American Sniper” 1.17.15

  1. Thought Bradley Cooper was pretty badass. Wow, he transformed his look, got way meatier, & his Texas accent I thought was believable. I did think American Sniper was extremely entertaining. Definitely held my attention the whole time. I guess a couple criticisms would be, I wasn’t as big of a fan of Sienna Miller’s scenes – I did not think she was very good in this. I do wish the film spent a little more time fleshing out that ending – thought that could have been a little more intense – him post war doing the social work with other soldiers, 1 of ‘em ultimately killing him.
    86/B
    For Clint Eastwood directed movies, I’d probably put this in my top 5 favorite of his at the #5 spot. But for me, there is quite a drop off after his top 3 (#1 MysticRiver, #2 MillionDollarBaby, #3 Unforgiven) to anything else he’s directed including this.

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  2. I’m glad you got the chance to finally see this film. As I would have thought you would have seen it in theaters given your liking of some of Eastwood’s prior work that you’ve told me about that you hold in high regard. And I think you made some good observations too. I also thought while Sienna Miller was serviceable in this role, I thought there were about a dozen other actresses who could have played the part better. I don’t know if it was just the way her character was written but the scenes with her in it almost detracted a little bit of the film for me. It was like she was emulating her lines in a soap-opera fashion which I thought made that part of the film (at least the scenes with her in it) seem contrived and melodramatically unnecessary even considering her integral part within the context of the film.

    I also thought B Coop was “badass” as you put it. Proving once again why he is a 3-time Academy Award nominated actor (noms in 2012 for “Silver Linings Playbook”, 2013 for “American Hustle”, and now this. His performance was a total trans-formative one. In where I felt like I was actually watching his full dynamic range as an actor on display as he totally immersed himself in the role in terms of his transformation and total commitment to it.

    I also thought the visceral aspect of how it was shot was impeccable and a true testament to Eastwood as a director. Watching it in a sold out theater where you could hear a pin drop not to mention as the credits rolled and you could hardly hear a whisper was a not only a nod to how good of a director Eastwood is, but it also felt authentic in the presentation of the material as almost every single person in the theater I saw it in was utterly moved. Once again acting as an example of why movies are “that” much better seen in the theater vs at home.

    A solid entry to the Eastwood filmography, which at the age of 84, I’m not sure how many films he has left in him. And as you mentioned, while great, not even on the same plane as other films of his like “Unforgiven”, “Million Dollar Baby”, or “Mystic River”. But I also think that that’s a bit of wishful thinking at this stage of his career, as I think he’s already hit and his well beyond his creative peak. Still though, this movie caught me a bit off guard in terms of being an Eastwood film, as mentioned, that was probably the best film he’s done in about a decade.

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  3. “American Sniper” A-. Great gritty war film on the war on terror in the middle East. First off, I can say enough about Bradley Coopers performance here. Definitely deserving of the Oscar nod for Best Actor, that accent and his mannerisms (yes ma’am, no sir) were typical Texas. Based on what I’ve read and researched about the actual Chris Kyle he performance was dead on. I remember you saying you were shocked and surprised he would even get nominated for an Oscar, maybe because you hadnt seen the film yet and thought Gyleenhaal got snubbed for “Nightcrawler”. (Southpaw by the way looks unbelieveably bad) Obviously retracted the statement after you saw this performance. Eastwood dominate behind the lens again, guy’s filmography is unreal. Agree with Mark in the Sienna Miller casting and her scenes threw me a little off. Wwould have preferred a little to no name actress to take on that role, but didnt deter from my overall grade all that much. The American war films depicting the fight on terror in the Middle East have been fantastic in my opinion in the last 5 years with this, “Lone Survivor”, “Zero Dark Thirty”, amongst south others I cant remember off the top of my head. Love the war film genre.

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  4. Of all of your recent reviews, which have been great by the way, this is the one that I’m going to have to disagree with you the most on. Not because of the quality of the film itself, as we both graded it similarly (though as you may recall, my “B+” grade had to do more with my “experience” of seeing the film on the big screen on opening weekend with a fully packed house.

    I agree with you on it being a pretty remarkable performance by Cooper. An actor who I think is a bit overrated – 3 Oscar nominations 3 years in a row? When actors like Jake Gyllenhaal and Leonardo continue to put in great performances and get shut out). I thought his transformation piece that you hint at to totally immerse himself into the role was definitely Oscar worthy and the fourth best performance of the year imo behind Michael Keaton in “Birdman”, Eddie Redmayne in “The Theory of Everything”, and Jake Gyllenhaal in “Nightcrawler”.

    Where I have to disagree with you here is the comment you made about Eastwood. His career as a whole (mostly as an actor) is nothing short of remarkable. But as a director, which you refer to as his “filmography” is slightly above average at best. The majority of his best films as a director came between a decade long period between 1992’s “Unforgiven” and ending with 2004’s “Million Dollar Baby”. Before this film he hadn’t made a good film in a decade. So I can’t say I’d necessarily call his oeuvre “unreal”.
    The other comment I have to say I disagree with you strongly on is the current state of American war films to have come out post-2000. I just had a in depth conversation with a co-worker about this very same topic just the other day. And we both came to the agreement that “The Hurt Locker” is the only “really” good American war film of the past 15 years. Of the three films you mentioned only “Zero Dark Thirty” sticks out to me as being a film of high quality. But even that I felt like was a bit of a rehashing of ideas from “The Hurt Locker”. With the exception of “The Hurt Locker” – “Zero Dark Thirty”, “American Sniper”, and especially “Lone Survivor” were slightly above mediocre films at best, mainly because they follow American war movie tropes far too closely. All of them seemed, to me at least, to be somewhat transparent and basically just templates for the growing number of the flag waving, patriotic, pro-American propagandist films where I felt like I should be drinking a Coke and eating a McDonald’s hamburger while watching them. I just can’t find myself being able to align myself with those kinds of agendas.

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