I could have called this post Shoddy ‘Sniper’ but didn’t out of respect for the fact that this Clint Eastwood film is about a real person, Navy SEAL Chris Kyle’s, life and death. I’m going to go out on a limb here and risk being in the minority (particularly in the South) and say it. I absolutely did not care for American Sniper. And that’s politics aside. Really.
The way I see it, this movie breaks too many rules of writing (i.e. storytelling, which is what film is). First, the characters (and here I’m referring largely to the main character played by Bradley Cooper) fail to change, grow or otherwise learn squat. There is virtually no character arc. What little depth of character we get is infused by Cooper’s inarguably fine performance. I have no idea if the real-life Kyle was this simplistic. I didn’t know him or read the book. I might point out that the villain of the story and arch nemesis of Kyle is a Syrian sniper who is wholly sinister and similarly one-dimensional right down to his black scarf.
Second, and this is a big one to me, the audience should feel something. Now I consider myself a compassionate, sensitive person. I avoid most news programing because I’ll just get too upset. I cried in Toy Story 3 for God’s sake when all the toys joined hands in the incinerator, prepared to meet their death. And yet, I couldn’t have cared less when this movie reached its tragic (and rather abrupt) ending.
Also, I like it when literature or filmmaking manages to impart some message. But what is American Sniper about? Post-traumatic stress disorder? The horrors of war? Patriotism? The celebrating of a war hero? I, for one, have no idea. The movie manages to bring up all these topics while never quite saying … well, anything. It’s like Clint invited the girl to the prom and then refused to dance with her.
And finally, there’s the problem I struggle with in my own writing. How to tell the story without the audience in mind. I read (in Vanity Fair’s January 2015 edition) that Chris Kyle’s father said to Eastwood and Cooper, “disrespect my son and I’ll unleash hell on you.” Now, how true a character portrayal are we supposed to get after a threat like that? But that’s assuming ‘Sniper’ set out to give us one anyway, which it clearly did not. That’s why it’s safer to invent fiction than to tell a story based on true events. Do I worry about familial reaction to my book? Sure I do. But my writing coach insists I should tell my truth. As I see it. This is the artist’s challenge. Eastwood obviously didn’t choose to accept it.
I’m not saying you should skip ‘Sniper’, although I toyed with that title, too. The storyteller and movie buff in me thinks any Best Picture nominee is at least worth checking out. If you do see it, make sure to look for the laughable fake robotic baby scene. You can’t miss it. Besides, two and a quarter hours (even if it does feel more like three) spent watching Bradley Cooper – how bad can that be?