American Sniper (2015)

★★

American Sniper PosterDirector: Clint Eastwood

Release Date: January 16th, 2015 (UK and US)

Genre: Action; Biography; Drama

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller

The problem with American Sniper is not necessarily that it’s controversial — though that train of thought is somewhat justified — but that it’s rather dull. In regurgitating a story set almost entirely during the worst of the conflict in Iraq post-9/11, and one based upon real events, you’d expect director Clint Eastwood to have something potent to say about war. At the very least, it’d be fair to expect a consistently taut human drama. We get neither from American Sniper, a film weighed down by overt patriotism and silly writing.

Bradley Cooper (now the recipient of three consecutive acting nominations at Academy Awards) stars as US Navy Seal Chris Kyle, a former rodeo cowboy so pained by news reports of terrorist attacks on his home soil that he enlists to fight abroad. It’s nothing more than a solid performance from Cooper, certainly not one on the same level as his two previous Oscar nominated stints in both Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle.

As the film progresses the bulked up actor’s role becomes an increasingly emotionless one, and consequentially quite thankless. Buying into the personal struggles of a man who spends his time in a place littered with death and despair — he, frankly, contributing to the mess — is a struggle in and of itself. This isn’t a critique of the real Chris Kyle, nor Cooper, and instead of the poorly conceived writing underpinning proceedings.

Adapted from Kyle’s own autobiography, Jason Hall delivers a screenplay severely lacking in nous or subtlety. Bearing no stance on the Iraq War that hasn’t already been exhausted on the big screen, or any screen, what we’re left with instead is a film trying desperately to convince itself that war is necessary. Men, women and children are all cast under the same umbrella marked “our enemy” and though this non-discriminatory outlook may well be a sporadically accurate reflection of reality, the film never suggests such a thing. Many of those whom the US soldiers meet in Iraq are carrying weapons with a view to kill. The suggestion is all civilians have been evacuated from the area of conflict, thus the ones who remain aren’t innocent. The fact that this wholesale evacuation hasn’t taken place compounds a lazily devised screenplay; as such, locals are placed on a morality gauge ranging from untrustworthy to terrorist.

In between head-scratching scenes that show Kyle conversing with his wife in the middle of a war zone — his attention should probably be on shooting all those baddies, right? — there’s a cat and mouse game playing out. An enemy shooter referred to as Mustafa (Sammy Sheik) is essentially the domestic Chris Kyle. Granted, the film is called American Sniper and therefore isn’t a piece that was ever going to pay as much attention to the non-American sniper, but the lack of dispersed humanisation is off putting. Kyle’s rapidly burgeoning Call of Duty kill count is celebrated with gusto amongst his peers whereas any damage done by Mustafa is vehemently denounced as the work of a “savage”. Of course it’s savagery, but there’s hardly even a nod towards the ambiguity of Kyle’s actions — when the film does venture down this route it only juggles the immorality of child-killing as opposed to people-killing.

The picture is at its most tense and best when Kyle is staring down the barrel of his deadly weapon, honing in on said infants and fuelled by uncertainty. Unfortunately any good work is undone by a laughably glorifying final sniper showdown. Intrigue edges up a tad when we’re back on home soil, where the military man feels more and more out of place as each tour ends. Sienna Miller plays his wife but doesn’t get enough to do as the narrative always chooses to follow Kyle when he goes overseas. She’s good though, infusing a bit of steel into Taya whilst also relaying the mental and physical exhaustion brought on by her husband’s constant displacement. Miller just about manages to overcome her unnecessarily bit-part function.

It’s this lack of urgency that hampers American Sniper, more so than any controversial portrayal or underwhelming performance. You’d expect it to be well made, and it is, but it doesn’t have the musky atmosphere of a Hurt Locker or the gruelling presentation of a Fury, nor does it bear the rich characterisation of those films. Tom Stern’s projection of a war zone is almost conventional, which is surprising given the cinematographer’s accomplished portfolio (Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, The Hunger Games). Eastwood doesn’t do an awful lot to alleviate this encroaching mundanity, he generating a tone that stops short at implying the possibility of danger lurking around every pile of rubble.

American Sniper has done extremely well at the US box office and, despite a more conservative reception over here in the UK, has undeniably been a success — particularly when its financial clout is coupled with awards recognition. This review is a bit superfluous in that regard, but I don’t think it’s without merit. It is entirely probably that the patriotic element is something that works well in America but not as well elsewhere. We all suffer as equals through blandness though, and this is bland filmmaking.

American Sniper - Bradley Cooper

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros. Pictures

Trouble with the Curve (2012)

★★★★

Director: Robert Lorenz

Release Date: September 21st, 2012 (US); November 30th, 2012 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Sport

Starring: Clint Eastwood, Amy Adams, Justin Timberlake

Whereas Bennett Miller’s Moneyball laid out the intricacies of baseball and created an engrossing film about the sport for people who don’t know the sport, Trouble with the Curve sees baseball solely as a starting point; as the spark that will go on to ignite a splendid tale of relationships, trust and stubbornness. The cast is excellent and each bring something different to the field, but it’s simplicity that allows Trouble with the Curve to thrive. The low-key approach is very laissez-faire, almost as if the film isn’t striving to make that home-run. Only, it just about gets there anyway.

Gus Lobel (Clint Eastwood) is an elderly scout who has plied his trade at the Atlanta Braves for decades. He has devoted his life to baseball and Gus’ ageing mind is always wandering in search for the next bat. Eyes failing him (a scout’s nightmare) and given one final chance to unearth a diamond, Gus finds himself on the road with his daughter Mickey (Amy Adams) whose success in law suggests more than just strength and independence, as it instead covers up the cracks dealt in a life without her father.

Not an awful lot happens in Trouble with the Curve, but it’s exactly that deficiency in over-doing things that gives the film its mellow charm and warmth. Having its toes dipped in the sports genre, a danger certainly exists where the attraction of glorifying situations and entering an all-too-familiar schmaltz territory is never far off, but director Robert Lorenz ensures sappiness is kept to an absolute minimum, meaning that when it does rear its mushy head, you are obliged to forgive. In a film about overcoming obstacles, it’s definitely more fitting to have some puddles of slush rather than sheets of uncompromising ice.

At the heart of the film are two performances, both of which provide the elevation needed for Trouble with the Curve to stand out from the pack. Clint Eastwood is gravelly, rustic, abrasive, croaky and a whole manner of other blemishes associated with an elderly man who has seen his best years, and who probably wont see much more of the sport he loves and lives. Gus Lobel’s colleagues are often seen exclaiming, “He may be ready for pasture,” “Game’s changed,” and “New blood”, and although he doesn’t hear these put-downs in the open, Eastwood’s defiant yet deep-down defeated demeanour tells you all you need to know about his character’s own perception of a bleak future.

Along, then, comes the simply delightful Amy Adams, who bursts with soul as she injects life into both Eastwood and the film. Although a cagey lawyer-type in the beginning, her relationship with Eastwood develops into an absorbing one: sometimes sad, sometimes funny, but always worth its weight in screen time. Gus and Mickey are far too stubborn to admit defeat (in their eyes, at least) and the film plays with this idea of withholding from loved ones until it might be too late. Mickey is always coiled up in work; her aspirations of getting a promotion in an industry she only entered to please her father are shallow, as he is never there to see her thrive anyway (“Everything’s okay as long we don’t talk”). Gus is distant, embroiled in baseball and relentlessly stutters when attempting to unveil feelings and sentiment towards his daughter. Justin Timberlake portrays former player Johnny Flanagan, someone who was apprehensive in the past about discussing the arm injury that prematurely ended his playing career. Timberlake deserves recognition for his charismatic contribution too, and together the three actors develop brilliant chemistry which ultimately drives the film and sharpens its principals.

In its lack of narrative extravagance, Trouble with the Curve does run the risk of inducing monotony, however the aforementioned engaging characters should be enough to guide you through until the end. Although not as funny as other road-trip films (which it essentially is) there are undoubtedly moments of comedy, a handful of which tread the black humour realm. This is Eastwood’s first non-self-directed acting expedition since a Casper cameo in 1995, and one or two playful sniggers towards age and losing touch with reality are on show — the whole ‘loss of sight’ element might even be a nod towards Eastwood’s real life front-of-camera career wind down.

It is all about the people involved, and thankfully the people involved are excellent company — there are even fun roles for Matthew Lillard and John Goodman, who has been pried from the Coen Brothers’ grip in order to film this. Purity is pivotal throughout Trouble with the Curve; heck, maybe a riskier, more diverse plot would’ve offered surprise and ingenuity. That’s wishful thinking though and, to be honest, probably a disservice to the brilliant effort on show from those involved.

Anyway, it is breakfast time… where’s my pizza?