This is rough; so rough. The kind of rough that I just know is going to irk people. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this post-9/11 world we live in, it’s that common sense and logic are far less important than how people feel about shit. Facts don’t matter; feelings do. What a depressing cocktail that is. I know because I get a fairly steady stream of hate mail.
Take, for instance, my recent review of the Guantanamo Bay-drama “Camp X-Ray.” During the review, I shared my feelings when I said, “9/11 feels like a lifetime ago.” I intended that as a completely innocuous comment about how far removed I felt from the events of September 11. It’s hard to remember a time before the changes after the terrorist attacks. Then, I received this gem from a fan:
“‘September 11, 2001 feels like a lifetime ago.’ Tell that to someone who lived in New York or had family there on that day, and I’m sure you’ll get punched in the face. For the people who lost loved ones on 9/11, it will never feel like a lifetime ago. It’s a part of every passing day. You should be ashamed of yourself for writing something like that.”
Well, the thing is: I don’t have family or friends who where there, and I’m not from New York. I’m one of the other 6.99 billion people who only have images and memories to connect them to that day. I wasn’t making fun of it, or telling people it didn’t matter. I simply was sharing my own personal feelings about the war on terror to frame up a review of a movie on the subject. Yet, here I am, being shamed for sharing a pretty simple, nonabrasive thought—as if even talking about 9/11 is potentially insulting. Like a movie critic is supposed to take into account every perspective on Earth when dealing with any potential conflict. News flash: It doesn’t work that way.
That being said: “American Sniper” is terrible. It’s awful in a way that is almost shocking. It’s a pointless, utterly worthless endeavor, only salvaged by a fantastic performance from Bradley Cooper. It’s not terrible because it’s a jingoistic or insultingly patriotic (which it is); it’s terrible because Clint Eastwood has told the most threadbare of stories. “American Sniper” is ultimately about nothing, and the ending is downright insulting. I’m going to be getting into some major spoiler territory ahead, so if you haven’t seen the movie, stop reading when I start to discuss its baffling endpoint.
Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is a self-professed good ol’ boy from Texas. He rides wild bucks in the rodeo, drinks beer, wears boots, and is unpretentious in the best possible way. His priorities are God, family and country (in that order). He’s drifting through life clad in denim, draped in women and enjoying this little life he’s carved out for himself. Then, he hears about some terrorist attacks happening overseas (pre-9/11) and decides it’s time to serve his country. Chris joins the Navy SEALS and begins a rigorous training process that few are able to complete. At 30 he’s older than the average recruit, but he has the resolve to push through and ends up becoming an elite sniper.
The film’s opening is one of the most thrilling scenes I can recall. It’s the same one featured in the trailer: A woman and a young boy exit a building, as a US convoy full of Marines heads their way. She hands him a makeshift grenade and he begins running toward the troops. Is he turning in a weapon they found, or is he about to commit an act of terrorism that will cost soldiers their lives? The first five minutes of the movie are amazing. It’s like every ounce of tension, drama and character are woven into that one moment. Then Clint Eastwood spends the remainder of the movie draining out all important elements, as the movie slowly bleeds to death.
The character is such an enigma—a patriot in every sense of the word. He doesn’t question why, even when everyone else around him does. It’s an unpopular war: Even the soldiers tasked with achieving freedom in Iraq have a cynical attitude toward a war that is doing little to protect anything other than American interests in the region. Chris maintains his commitment to the cause, despite the fact it almost tears his marriage apart.
As well, he struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder: His 160 kills have made him a legend in the military, but the horrors he’s witnessed are weighing heavier and heavier. Chris finally finds some solace in helping other veterans deal with the physical and emotional scars of war.
I didn’t know a thing about Chris Kyle before seeing this movie. The basic story felt thematically reminiscent of “Hurt Locker”: A guy who is really good at his job sees a lot of horrific violence in a nebulous war, and, for some reason, the job becomes more important than the life he left behind. It’s hardly original but certainly an average portrayal.
Eastwood delivers a very matter-of-fact movie. It’s a frills-free look at a sniper in a combat zone, dealing with some drama on the home front, too. It never recovers that tension or perfection of the first few minutes. This is one of the truest instances of “everything good is in the trailer.” If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen everything exceptional about “American Sniper.” The rest of it is dead average, and the ending—oh my God, the ending! Stop reading if you want to avoid major spoilers.
As I said before, I knew nothing about Chris Kyle. I knew he was a real person and it was a true story. The film ends abruptly. Chris helps other veterans, featuring some nice moments where he finally begins to understand helping his fellow soldiers may take more than killing the enemy. Chris also spends time at home with his family, finally achieving a small sense of piece. Then he tells his wife he’s going to take a drive to help another soldier in need. Suddenly, everything fades to black, and a graphic shows on screen: “Chris was killed that day by the soldier he was trying to help.” This is followed by footage of Chris’ funeral procession.
There were three words that went through my head. The first two: “what” and “the,” but I’ll spare you the third. He was killed by the soldier he was trying to help? How? Why? What were the events leading up to that moment? A thousand questions bounced around my cranium. Some subsequent research informed me that he and another soldier were shot in the back while at a rifle range. Details are scarce because the accused killer hasn’t gone to trial yet. This is where I start to get angry at Clint Eastwood. Maybe it’s me, but I think there might be a pretty good story there that would have made the ending of “American Sniper” feel less insulting. Eastwood and company could have waited another year or two before filming the biographical feature film of “America’s greatest sniper,” so it could have a proper ending.
I couldn’t get past the ending. It was like the Poochie episode of “The Simpsons,” where the character declares, “I have to go back to my home planet now,” before ascending up and out of frame. Or that completely baffling choice in “Lincoln” to stage a scene at a theater before realizing it’s not the one where Lincoln was assassinated. It would be like doing a movie about Hitler and ending it right after he orders his forces to cross the eastern front. There is more to this story and arguably a much more interesting story to be told.
Before seeing the ending, I would have assigned one star for the movie’s opening, and one-and-a-half stars for Bradley Cooper’s performance. Sadly, that ending almost negates everything that came before it. It’s like you just got to the most interesting part of the movie and someone yells, “Oops, we’re out of time.” I can’t remember a more jarring finale or a more confusing creative choice. Disappointing doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Starring Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller
Directed by Clint Eastwood