Two Takes: “American Sniper” Review

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In our new review column, Cameron and Ali have a conversation and give both of their takes on Clint Eastwood’s latest film, which just earned six Academy Award nominations.

Bradley Cooper stars as Chris Kyle in Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper.”

Cameron:
After three weeks in tremendously successful limited release, earning six Oscar nominations and a perfect storm of buzz and press interest, Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” opened up nationwide this weekend. I loved the film on many levels. What was your overall impression?
Ali:
Overall impression? I’d say this is a very heavy film. And I loved it, too. I really did, I wish I wasn’t in such a rush after the movie. That way, I could really soak in the feeling I was left with after this film.

Particularly with regard to what it means to be a war hero, I felt the entire time Clint Eastwood was playing like a devil’s advocate of sorts. I didn’t know if he was glorifying or horrifying it.

Cameron:
I got the sense that Eastwood’s main goal was to show not just this character, Chris Kyle, but his actual character—his integrity. We see how he was raised, what he values, why he did what he did, and that even that wasn’t enough to save him from the weight of war. I’ve read some opinion pieces from veterans and they all seem to agree that this film provides the most accurate representation of what the Iraqi war was like, both through the emotional weight of the film and through the technical choices that Eastwood made.
Ali:
I agree with you here. But, like, what technical choices specifically would you say highlight the emotional aspect of it?

You and I watch movies in very different ways – I pay more attention to (and correct me if I’m wrong here) the story and what that means for the characters and, like you, the emotional aspect of it. And you’re so aware of the director’s choices and technical choices that affect the tenor of the film.

Sienna Miller as Taya Renae Kyle.
Cameron:
No, that’s absolutely right! We are on the lookout for totally different things in the film.

Eastwood is one of my favorite directors because of his meticulous attention to detail. This film is up there with his best, in my opinion, but contains some of his most modest visual stylings. The main technical aspect that I think heightens the experience of watching the film is the sound.

There is hardly any score in the film, first of all.

Ali:
True, true.
Cameron:
Even “The Hurt Locker” which contained mostly just stings and tense strings, was lush compared to any music we see here. And its not just the lack of a score, its the horrifying and overwhelming soundscape that was created. Bullets, explosions, white noise… we really get the sense of how nerve-wracking being in that situation is and how on edge you must be—looking everywhere around you, never knowing who is perched up on a rooftop with a rifle or a grenade launcher. It rattles your bones.
Ali:
That and just how, like, vast and boring (for lack of a better word) most of the day is.
Cameron:
Also, the photography is very understated. They could have upped the contrast or heightened the orange hues and centered more things to achieve more of an artistic look, like “Zero Dark Thirty” or “The Hurt Locker.” But, I don’t think that was the goal. The goal was realism. And yes, part of that is showing how vast most of the day when you aren’t in battle is.
Ali:
I agree with you… this isn’t something I noticed while watching it, but in retrospection, yeah, I agree with you.

Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle and Luke Grimes as Marc Lee.
Cameron:
There are a few money shots, though, and they are particularly masterful and all in sequence during the apex of the film.
Ali:
Okay, talk to me. What would you say they are?
Cameron:
We have that helicopter master shot that sets up the city and the blocks surrounding their final battle. We have the one slowed down shot of the bullet as it hits the film’s main antagonist, Mustafa, the Arab sniper. Then we have the riveting sandstorm… which just was so excellent for me. I felt helpless.
Ali:
I loved the sandstorm moment, too. And as the film progressed I noticed myself becoming more and more tense so that by the end of the film I was ready to just breathe…

And I didn’t love the slowed down bullet. I thought that was just a bit too much. I felt like, I get it. This is big, you don’t need to walk me through what’s happening.

Cameron:
I thought it was fine, because there weren’t any other shots like that in the film. It capitalized on the ‘aim small, miss small’ lesson from earlier. I don’t know if it was completely necessary to slow it down, but I do think it was important to show definitively that Mustafa was hit. That was a big moment in the plot.
Ali:
I agree. I think that was a HUGE moment in the plot, and it brought us full circle, but it’s just the slowness of the moment I didn’t like.

Everything else is so fast, that I felt like that moment should have been fast too.

Sammy Sheik as Mustafa.

Cameron:
I feel like “American Sniper” plays similarly to “Zero Dark Thirty” in the regard that you just need to catch your breath by the end, but these two films just feel so different from one another. While Jessica Chastain is the central character and you see her safe from harm in the film, it is different when you get so attached to a character and see them in and out of danger. I think Kyle’s moments at home with his family were as affecting as his moments on the warfront. Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller were both excellent. I wasn’t sure what to expect from her, but she did great. What do you think?
Ali:
They play very differently. There’s success at the end of “Zero Dark Thirty,” and I use the word success very, very loosely. She finished her job. And when she’s headed home, you feel the relief. When Jessica Chastain finally cries, it’s like you can see the tension and emotion and buildup seeping out of her body. But with “American Sniper” there’s a shakier barometer of what it means to be successful. It’s not quite as wrapped up, not quite as tidy. And with Kyle, when he gets home, when he shoots Mustafa, and his war is “over,” he’s still not done, there’s a resonating damage.

And I was very impressed with Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller.

Bradley Cooper… I’ve become a fan of his. I used to not be, but I’ve come to expect good work from him. And Sienna Miller, I don’t really expect that, so for her to show this kind of range, I was so, so pleased.

Their marriage didn’t seem trite or movie-like, it felt what I imagine a real marriage would.

Cameron:
Yes, and we see both of them change from who they were at the beginning, which is so nice.
Ali:
Yes, I agree completely.

Sienna Miller as Taya Renae Kyle.

Cameron:
Yes, those are excellent points about what measured ‘success’ in each film.

I think that was honestly a roadblock for this film, because the concept of him having the most kills of any sniper in American history is at once both strangely patriotic and off-putting. I mean, I get why it was necessary, but it’s not really something that is universally marketable. The film’s critical and financial successes are a testament to the fact that Eastwood pulled it off. He wasn’t heavy handed with patriotism or violence, with sentimentality or brutality. There is a lot of balance here.

Ali:
And that’s exactly what I mean about horrifying or glorifying.

And really quickly, with regard to Eastwood and his craftsmanship… I expected this to be a good movie. I did. I didn’t know quite how much I’d like it or even love it, but I had high expectations for this movie. The trailers were extremely effective in that they immediately sparked interest and concern and emotional investment (maybe we should have a talk about the problem with movie trailers another time). And I expected good work from Eastwood; he always delivers that. And this film was no exception. I have to agree with you, that this film was among his best… I don’t think a single frame was wasted.

…Well except for the slo-mo part.

Cameron:
Yes, and while he has not exactly been on a winning streak lately, there is always a high bar for an Eastwood film and I’m glad to say he delivered here. The trailers give a great idea of what to expect with the film.

Which brings me to a question for you…

You are the screenplay expert. What did you think about the screenplay? Eastwood has, in recent years, had a bad habit of shooting a film on what seems to be the first draft of a screenplay, or at least an underwritten screenplay, and that totally affects the finished product. Looking at “J. Edgar” or “Invictus,” while both films had a few different problems, one of the main ones for both was an undercooked script. This feels different to me. Aside from a few scenes at the beginning, it seems to be pretty thoughtful and well structured to me. What do you think?

Ali:
Well, with the Screenplay Competition for the Atlanta Film Festival right around the corner, I’ve only been reading those scripts. “American Sniper” is sitting on my desktop right now waiting to be read. But as far as what we see in the film, I mean, I’d say this is a quality story. In the beginning, we have a reason to invest in Kyle and his character. We see that he’s a good guy. Then he meets his wife, and we have even more a reason to root for him.

And the emotional pull is super strong here. I felt invested from the beginning despite the fact that I don’t necessarily agree with this character.

And that’s really wonderful. The conviction of this character is incredible. It really is.

It’s an amazing story, really. I’m glad it was told, I’m particularly glad that a quality director was there to tell it, too; it’d be a shame had this film not done the real story justice.

Bradley Cooper and Madeleine McGraw as Chris and McKenna Kyle.

Cameron:
Yes, I think Jason Hall’s screenplay cares a lot about not just these people, but their convictions. I thought that was nice. It wasn’t trying to push an agenda, but it was trying to give you the motive behind the characters.

I’m so glad Eastwood got this one and not a lesser filmmaker. Although, Spielberg had it first and then dropped out. That would have been OK, too!

Ali:
Exactly, and it’s like Kyle thinks this way because this is who Kyle is, not because this is how all people are. It’s particular.

It would have been interesting to see what Spielberg would have done; no doubt at all that he would have made a quality film, too.

Cameron:
Yes.

Any final thoughts?

Ali:
This is such an affecting movie… just if you see it, and I suggest folks do (especially on a big screen), just give yourself some time afterwards. I’d highly recommend it.

You? What are your final thoughts?

Cameron:
I agree. There is a lot to chew on here, and I even knew Chris Kyle’s story before I saw the film. It’s powerful.

There is just so much thought that went into this film and the performances, and that is what makes it such a success.

Ali:
I’d agree.

And I thought about this movie all morning too; it hasn’t left me easily. Which is usually how I judge whether or not I really loved it, you know? 

Cameron:

4.5 out of 5 stars.
Ali:
4.5 out of 5 stars

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