REVIEW | Eastwood misses mark with ‘American Sniper’

In his second cinematic outing of 2014, director Clint Eastwood tells the story of Navy Seal Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in American history, with 160 confirmed kills. However, “American Sniper”(based on the memoir by Kyle, Scott McEwen and James Defelcie) attempts to be both pro- and anti-war, displaying Kyle’s military exploits, as well as his having to readjust to normal society between tours. It’s a great story, yet Eastwood’s film rarely escalates to such heights. It’s competently made but also underwhelming; the screenplay by James Hall often resorts to cliché and heavy-handed storytelling.

After starting in medias res, the film flashes back to briefly guide us through Kyle’s early life, most of which feel unnecessary to show. The only moments that have any significance are Kyle’s sudden decision to join the Army, after hearing about U.S. embassies getting blown up, and Kyle meeting of his wife, Taya Renae (Sienna Miller). But since they’re preceded by several superfluous scenes, Eastwood rushes through without giving them enough time to breathe.

“American Sniper” is best when it focuses on Kyle’s (Bradley Cooper) military accomplishments in Iraq and, more specifically, when it gets into his head as a sniper. It’s a tremendous amount of responsibility for him to be in a position of extreme omnipotence and stress, and the picture coveys all of this in a fairly tense and exciting manner.

The rest of the combat sequences, while occasionally thrilling, feel relatively standard and routine. Watching them, you’re reminded of the combat scenes in better, modern war movies, like Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down” and Peter Berg’s “Lone Survivor,” from last year. Eastwood’s picture rarely grabs you the way those movies did. During my viewing of “Lone Survivor,” there were times I was practically hiding under my seat because I was so uncomfortable, whereas in “American Sniper,” I barely cringed. On top of that, Kyle’s military buddies remain one-dimensional, making it difficult for me to care too much about them when tragedy strikes.

The conflicts that take place on the homeland between Kyle and Taya are even less compelling. Miller does the best she can, but her character is sort of hung out to dry. In addition to being saddled with some of the worst, most clichéd lines of dialogue, she’s stuck being the wet-blanket wife at home with the kids. Taya isn’t given enough dimensions: About half of her role is sobbing or yelling at Kyle.

As for Kyle’s two kids, they’re just treated as props, to add more stakes to Kyle’s situation. This family aspect of a war picture needs to hold more of a presence.

To his credit, Cooper is actually very good, convincingly portraying a man who’s torn between his country and his family. His handsome but likable everyman sensibilities fit Kyle perfectly, and he wisely underplays the character. Overall, Cooper’s performance feels genuine and is easily the film’s strongest asset. That being said, even Cooper is sometimes hindered by the screenplay’s more heavy-handed and propagandistic qualities, which feel tacked on.

I haven’t expected much from Eastwood these days. I admire that the 84-year-old director/actor continues to make movies, but none of his recent efforts — “Jersey Boys,” “J. Edgar,” “Invictus” —  have a lot of fire and passion in them. “American Sniper” is skillfully made, but it’s hardly ever remarkable. Like the rest of Eastwood’s filmography of late, “Sniper” goes through the motions.