American Sniper [AFI Fest 2014]
Warner Bros. // R // December 25, 2014
Review by Jeff Nelson | posted November 12, 2014
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With the AFI (American Film Institute) Film Festival almost over, it was announced that there would be a secret screening. While nobody knew what film would be shown, only the time and the place were established. Soon, Warner Bros. was confirmed to be showing the world premiere of Clint Eastwood's new American Sniper. After braving the crowds at the Egyptian Theater, I held high hopes that the film would be even more tense than the attention-grabbing teaser trailer that was released a little while ago. Writer Jason Dean Hall adapts Chris Kyle's book in a brazen attempt to inform and thrill. This is a mostly successful effort, as it tells a story of an American hero who accomplished so much, and put his life on the line for this country numerous times. AFI Fest picked a fitting film to play this Veteran's Day at the film festival.

Coming from Texas, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) was inspired to join the military in order to fight for his country. After watching some of the violence since 9/11, he feels as if he was born for this. Chris becomes a Navy S.E.A.L., and ultimately gains the respect of his fellow soldiers. Recounting his military career of more than 150 confirmed kills, Chris Kyle tells of the horrors that he endured overseas, and the things that can never been unseen, as he fights for America and his wife, Taya Renae Kyle (Sienna Miller).

If you've seen the teaser trailer, then you know how American Sniper starts. Chris Kyle sits on a rooftop, as he visualizes a young boy and his mother approaching a group of American soldiers with a weapon that threaten their lives. He must make the call whether or not to pull the trigger. This is credited as his first day on the job of being a sniper, and it's an impactful one. It speaks a lot about he unspeakable things that many of these soldiers saw overseas, and what they had to do in order to protect one another on the battlefield. The first bullet brings us back to a time where Chris is hunting with his father as a kid. Even from a young age, he proves to have a good aim, and the attitude needed to protect his country. When his younger brother, Jeff Kyle (Luke Sunshine) is bullied at school, Chris has no problem finishing what another kid started. American Sniper is more than a war film, but is the recounting of Chris Kyle's life, and how he was driven to the military life. What made him decide to join the military? It's a truly intriguing story that deserves to be told in the most accurate way possible. Writer Jason Dean Hall doesn't entirely seem to do it justice, although he does manage to successfully make this feel like the personal journey that it is, rather than a movie simply about sniping extremists.

Once Chris Kyle is completely grown up and has joined as a Navy S.E.A.L., the film is split up between spending time on tours and spending time with his wife at home. American Sniper continually intensifies on both ends here, as things become more difficult as time goes on in both aspects of his life. What initially appears to be a man doing his job on the battlefield clearly affects Chris, both on deployment and back at home. Picking up the nickname "Legend," fellow soldiers feel safe with him on the rooftops, but he doesn't always trust himself. He begins to blame himself for the deaths of those he couldn't possibly have saved. While it's clear that this job placed a lot of stress on Chris, it could have dug a lot deeper. It feels as if we only ever see the tip of the iceberg, and never get a glance underneath the waters. When he returns home, his mind isn't ever truly there. His head turns to sounds of drills and other devices, and is forced to live with the terrible things that he has experienced overseas. Yet, a large amount of this feels done before. Writer Jason Deal Hall had the opportunity to take us on a personal journey of a man who experienced a nightmarish reality, but we feel somewhat held at a distance from everything that's happening. Chris Kyle has done a lot for America, and we simply want to learn more about the man behind the scope, but it never entirely feels like we get the chance to.

Unfortunately, just as the third act intensifies on the battlefield, it doesn't manage to entirely display the struggle of overcoming the feelings that Chris Kyle endured when coming back to America. It's addressed, but not stressed. Much like other military films, we're given essentially the same treatment. Writer Jason Dean Hall handled this much like any other soldier's story, but Chris Kyle's story is massively different, which is why the handling of it is so strange. It's all a bit "run-of-the-mill," which is a bit disappointing. The screenplay simply doesn't live up to the massive accomplishments that this man made. However, make no mistake, as the film maintains a certain tension that makes us sit at the edge of our seats. If you already know of Chris' story, then there aren't many surprises, but director Clint Eastwood and writer Jason Deal Hall make many of the sniping sequences feel even more urgent and intense than being on the ground. It's so much more than a war story, as it's also one of morality. Knowing whether or not to squeeze that trigger is an important one, and could prove to have horrible consequences. There are so many factors at play here that are addressed, although they aren't all entirely handled as well as they should be.

When it comes to the performances, Bradley Cooper is excellent as Chris Kyle. With a Texan accent, he manages to make us entirely believe in this character. This feels like so much more than a portrayal, as he truly becomes the sniper that his fellow soldiers come to know as "The Legend." This representation could have easily been taken over-the-top, but Cooper remains an magnificent level of restraint that is sure to impress. Sienna Miller hits it out of the park as Taya Renae Kyle in this tremendously raw performance that truly aids in allowing us to witness the fear and anxieties of having a loved one in the military. The story might not be from her perspective, but Miller's successful performance accomplishes more than the screenplay ever could. These are a pair of dynamically intense performances that land with a tremendous impact.

Director Clint Eastwood provides an intriguing visual direction. While they each have struggles of their own, he differentiates between the battlefield and home with completely different techniques. While we're out of the country, he utilizes a large number of tight close-ups in order to provide a claustrophobic and tense setting that will have you gasping for air. The color palette is heavily muted, as the entire picture has a white filter over it. The shots are most certainly longer while he's back at home with warmer yellows filling the picture. However, where the battlefield feels tight, home feels almost too big, to the point that we feel that we're going to get lost in it along with Chris Kyle. Nothing can prepare you for the wildly impactful audio track that pierces our ears, as each bullet is fired. Not one pull of the trigger feels light, as Eastwood pulls attention to the frequent possibility of the loss of an American life. Awe-inspiring and tremendously bold, Clint Eastwood hits on all of the right visual notes.

There isn't any new ground explored, although this remains an exceptional story of patriotism. It explores both the intensities of combat, as well as the struggles of returning to an every day life. While these topics have been explored previously, seeing it from the perspective of Chris Kyle makes all of the difference. We constantly want the film to dig deeper, as we continue to explore the professional and personal sides of Chris Kyle's life. However, I wanted to be absolutely blown away, but I was left simply liking it, rather than loving it. Even so, this remains an intense display of combat, brotherhood, family, and patriotism that works in its big screen adaptation. American Sniper is The Hurt Locker in a scope. This is Bradley Cooper at his best. Recommended.

American Sniper debuted as the secret screening at AFI FEST 2014 presented by Audi. Warner Bros. will release it in limited release on December 25, with a nationwide release on January 16, 2015.



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