18 January 2015

"I'm Better When It's Breathing"

When I saw the trailer for American Sniper, I didn't think I needed to see another film about a brilliant but troubled US soldier in the Iraq War — hey, I sat through all 2h10 of The Hurt Locker. But I do have a soft spot for Clint Eastwood's films, even though I haven't loved any of them since Gran Torino, and so I found myself spending yesterday afternoon watching another two-hour-ten-minuter and it turned out that my initial instincts were right. American Sniper is perfectly fine and features a good performance from Bradley Cooper as the eponymous sniper, but it just didn't feel very unique.

The film opens with a scene from the trailer: a US sniper on an Iraqi rooftop has to decide whether to shoot and kill a young boy carrying a grenade. He deliberates for a while and then, just as his finger tightens on the trigger, we flash back to the sniper's own youth, where his father teaches him how to shoot a deer and warns him that of the three types of people — sheep, wolves and sheepdogs — the latter is the only acceptable category.

Then we jump forward 20 years and Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is working as a ranch hand and rodeo star in his native Texas with his brother Jeff (Keir O'Donnell). When Chris sees the news about the 1998 US embassy bombings on TV, he decides that it is time to do his bit for his country and enlists as a Navy Seal. During training, he keeps messing up during target practice; "I'm better when it's breathing," he explains. Later, he meets Taya (Sienna Miller) and woos her with such lines as, "I'm not a redneck, I'm from Texas". They scarcely have time to get hitched before the Iraq War breaks out and Chris heads off to fight. They do have time to get pregnant, however, and Taya must go through her pregnancy physically alone and also, for the most part, emotionally alone.

Chris achieves great success on his tours, and soon becomes known as The Legend — the deadliest sniper in US history. He will do anything he can to protect the marines by guarding them from the rooftops and feels immense guilt over the ones he can't save. He feels less guilty about the Iraqis he has killed (save a couple of young boys who made the mistake of picking up weapons) because he truly believes his purpose in life is to save as many American soldiers as he can by any means possible.

With his fellow troops, Chris is funny, inspiring and brave; they all love and admire him. Back on home soil, though, he finds it hard to switch off. His eyes and ears are constantly primed to expect danger and treachery, and he finds it impossible to talk to Taya about his experiences. "Even when you're here, you're not here," she protests, asking Chris when it will be their time. "They can't wait and we can," he replies to her frustration.

There is an awful lot of sniping in the film's middle hour and this second act in particular felt baggy and in need of a tighter edit. That isn't to say that it was boring — Eastwood maintains a constant level of tension throughout — but the same story could have been told more efficiently, and for me, the final 20-ish minutes were the strongest part of the film, as the nature of PTSD and the other consequences of war and fighting for one's country are teased out more subtly. Miller is, as in Foxcatcher, somewhat underused but gives a fine performance as the loving wife who can no nothing but watch and wait as she lives with the aftermath of her husband's decisions. Cooper, meanwhile, does a great job playing a complex and evolving character.

Kyle was, in fact, a real American sniper and the film is based on his memoir of the same name. It is a deeply personal story, but it sometimes feels as though Eastwood is counting on its true-life pedigree to yield more gravitas than it might otherwise have achieved. American Sniper is a good movie, but not a truly great one, and certainly not Eastwood's best work.

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