Remember The Hurt Locker? Well, American Sniper is basically that with a sniper instead of a bomb disposal expert.
The movie tells the ostensibly mostly true story of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper, who also produces), a SEAL sniper who accumulated 160 confirmed out of 255 probable kills over four tours in Iraq. He garnered widespread fame among both the military and the insurgency, called “The Legend” by one side and “The Devil of Ramadi” by the other, which eventually put an $80,000 price on his head. Kyle also participates in door-to-door searches and leads teams hunting Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), an Olympian insurgent sniper.
American Sniper’s most obvious characteristic as a film is how similar it is to The Hurt Locker. In terms of setting and aesthetics and in terms of visceral appeal, they are the same movie — Sniper is significantly faster, but they’re both about watching high-tension situations against guerrilla warriors in Iraq. Locker is the better of the two because William James is a more interesting character and, though it doesn’t claim to be a true story, it’s based on an embedded journalist’s experiences and probably about as accurate as Sniper, based on Kyle’s autobiography — Kyle had a nasty streak of unverifiable claims, and some of his more famous confirmed exploits are heavily altered in the movie. But that doesn’t mean Sniper isn’t an intense, overwhelming experience in its own right.
There are exactly two things that distinguish the films — the plotline with Kyle’s wife, Taya (Sienna Miller) and the lead characters’ motivations. Instead of using war to get his adrenaline fix, Kyle deals with difficulty readjusting to civilian life.
The primary tension of American Sniper is between the two lovers and within Kyle himself. Kyle quickly becomes that weird veteran who no one really likes — you know, the one who’s always short with everyone and is clearly still in a completely dissociated war zone mindset, and no one wants to say anything to him because he’s a veteran, but everyone can tell he needs help. Taya serves as a pause in the tension, an overt and subvert foil to Kyle to show his transformation, and eventually a mode to show the tension from war finding its way back home.
The problem this creates is, though it’s the main and most interesting conflict, it’s not the main one by screen time. Most of that is spent in Iraq in the high-strung situations that give Kyle trouble at home. The home front conflict only gets a brief dialogue scene for each break in his tours. It would have been fantastic to see a movie made primarily in suburban Fort Worth about getting back to civilian life.
What we got instead is The Hurt Locker Redux, and that’s not a bad thing, but it has the same problems — the constant high-tension climax may be the horrifying reality for soldiers fighting the insurgency, but it gets a little boring to watch for two or three consecutive hours.
Joshua Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. Man, I need to watch Hurt Locker again, that was a good movie. I’ve had a change of heart about reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter when I can be bothered to make one, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.