The Film: 3.5/5
A subject of controversy, litigation and cultural dissection since its publication in 2012, the late Chris Kyle’s memoir American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History (which he co-wrote with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice) was originally to be brought to the big screen under the direction of Steven Spielberg. Once the most popular filmmaker in the entire world realized he was unable to do the material justice (though he did contribute some ideas that went into the final script), the legendary Clint Eastwood stepped in to marshal the longtime pet project of star/producer Bradley Cooper into the realm of the possible.
Born and raised in the great state of Texas, Chris Kyle (Cooper) was barely scratching out a living as a rodeo rider and ranch hand when he found his true calling to enlist in the Navy’s elite SEAL program and defend American abroad from the lurking threat of terrorism. His skills with firearms easily made him a candidate to become a scout sniper with the SEALs and after completing training he meets the love of his life – and future significant other – Taya (Sienna Miller) and finds himself deployed to Iraq from the very beginning of the 2003. Over the course of four tours of duty, Chris amasses an impressive tally of confirmed kills that have his fellow SEALs and soldiers from other branches of the Armed Forces branding him “the Legend”. After each tour is complete, however, Chris finds it increasingly difficult to return to civilian life and be with Taya and their children when Mustafa (Sammy Shiek), a highly-skilled Syrian sniper who competed in the Olympics and has been tasked by the insurgents to be their own Legend.
There was a classic of combat cinema to be made from the book American Sniper, but to do so would involve stripping away the mythic status surrounding its central figure in order to more closely examine the complex and troubled human being beneath the media-friendly surface. Unless he’s on a rooftop behind enemy lines capping armed insurgents with a cool head, Chris Kyle isn’t a particular interesting person. He’s just an old-fashioned dude who loves his family, really loves America, and will do anything and everything to guarantee the safety of both. I’m sure there was a great deal more to the real Kyle than we are presented here, but unfortunately Eastwood, Cooper, and screenwriter Jason Hall (Paranoia) choose to honor the late Navy SEAL by portraying him the way he was viewed by others while only occasionally giving us a glimpse of Kyle’s inner torment, which usually comes in brief moments towards the end when it becomes clear that life in a war zone no longer agrees with him.
The film we were given instead still represents Eastwood’s finest work behind the camera since Gran Torino and his characteristically restrained approach to direction serves him well during the quieter dramatic beats and the heated combat scenes in Iraq (represented here by locations in Morocco). While the battle scenes in American Sniper lack the visual charge and nail-chewing urgency of recent war film highlights such as Black Hawk Down and The Hurt Locker, they still manage to capture the chaos and the constant dreadful feeling that in an active combat zone your life could be taken at any moment by an enemy you never see coming. The director’s longtime cinematographer Tom Stern (Mystic River) gets his camera up close and very personal during the heat of battle but often chooses to remain distant when the focus of the scene is on the dilemma that rages within Kyle when he’s forced to draw a bead on a woman or child he doesn’t want to shoot but may have to regardless of his personal feelings.
I can’t see anyone but Bradley Cooper being able to convincingly portray how the confident and forthright Kyle is slowly altered by his experiences in the Middle East. His performance provides American Sniper with its emotional center as the choice between staying home with his family and returning to Iraq time and again to complete his duty becomes even more difficult than before. Sienna Miller is quite good as his wife and rock Taya, but after an excellent introduction scene where she and Chris size each other up and realize that they are perfect for each other, she gets little to do in the film but get pregnant and fret over Chris’ safety. At least what little Miller is given to work with is handed with restraint and intelligence, assisted greatly by her chemistry with Cooper, and she never resorts to soap opera dramatics to stand out. The majority of the supporting cast was unknown to me, but there wasn’t a single weak link to be found. Special mention must to go to Ben Reed as Chris’ brutish father who instills in his son the values that define who he becomes later in life, and Keir O’Donnell as his younger brother Jeff (who gets his own firsthand experience of the horrors of modern warfare when he enlists in the Marine Corps).
Almost everything about American Sniper has such a professional sheen to it that just works when viewed as a whole, but the one crucial element that keeps holding it back is Hall’s script, which insists on reminding us what a legend Chris Kyle in nearly every other scene even though he apparently bristled at the very idea that he was somehow better than anyone else at the job he took upon himself to do. Hall also falls prey far too often to writing dialogue that is weighed down by its own obviousness, especially when Kyle responds to anyone voicing the slightest dissent with right-wing talking points that anyone who watches Fox News most of the day would easily mistake for their own original thoughts.
American Sniper features no full original orchestral score outside of some minor contributions from Eastwood himself and Joseph DeBeasi (credited with “additional music”), which was probably the best way to avoid undermining the quiet dramatic impact of the stateside domestic scenes and the visceral thrills of the combat sequences. It wasn’t until the movie was over when I realized that the haunting music that played over the end credits was “The Funeral”, which longtime Eastwood collaborator Ennio Morricone composed for Duccio Tessari’s 1965 Italian western Una Pistola Per Ringo (A Pistol for Ringo). I found that to be pretty cool and a nice little tip of the hat from a gifted filmmaker with the skills to make an effective motion picture to the maestro who helped make him an icon of the silver screen in the first place.
Warner Bros. first released American Sniper on Blu-ray about a year ago and the disc was lauded for its near-perfect picture and sound quality. The first disc of the double dip-worthy “Chris Kyle Commemorative Edition” set looks to contain the same stunning 1080 high-definition transfer and demo quality English Dolby Atmos soundtrack from the 2015 Region A release. Presented in the 2.40:1 widescreen aspect ratio, the digitally-photographed Sniper comes to Blu-ray with its muted, earthy colors preserved beautifully, texture and details sharpened to the point where you can count almost every grain of grit and dirt on the actors’ faces, and the CGI integrated into the rest of the picture without calling too much attention to itself (though there are moments….). Depending on what sort of home theater set-up you have, the main English audio track will be read by your Blu-ray player as either Dolby Atmos or Dolby TrueHD 7.1, but whatever you end up, the audio is astounding and immersive with absolutely no disruption, noise, or overlap. Every line of dialogue can be heard even at the lowest tones, while the layered ambient effects mix compliments the dialogue and sparse music selections with pleasing results. French Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 and Spanish and Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are also offered, and you can choose to watch the film with optional English, French, Latino Espanol, and Portuguese subtitles.
The first of the two Blu-ray discs in this set carries the same special features from last year’s single-disc release – upfront trailers for San Andreas and Mad Max: Fury Road and the behind-the-scenes documentaries “One Soldier’s Story: The Journey of American Sniper” (31 minutes) and “The Making of American Sniper” (28 minutes). The docs feature a wealth of cast and crew interviews providing valuable insight into the project’s development from best-selling book to blockbuster motion picture and occasionally rise above the standard of electronic press kit promotion.
The second disc contains three new documentaries – the first two of which are narrated by Bradley Cooper – that focus on the people and events that inspired the film. “Chris Kyle: The Man Behind the Legend” (30 minutes) is a glowing tribute to the real-life American sniper. “Navy SEALs: In War and Peace” (30 minutes) provides a broad exploration of the elite fighting force and how its members train for combat and operate on the battlefield. Finally, “Bringing the War Home: The Cost of Heroism” (21 minutes) devotes its running time to stories of soldiers who returned to the U.S. after finishing their tour of duty or being wounded and how they cope with the physical and psychological damage they endured in the service of their country. A theatrical trailer loaded with rapturous praise from the nation’s top critics (2 minutes) that was released to promote the film’s wide release finishes out the set.
Although its tin-eared dialogue and puzzling reluctance to explore the complicated psychology of its characters prevent it from becoming a war movie Hall of Fame candidate, American Sniper nevertheless remains a solid entry in the genre with enjoyably workmanlike direction from Clint Eastwood, a gutsy lead performance from Bradley Cooper, and battle sequences executed with intensity and bloody bravado. The stellar picture and sound quality of the main feature and excellent production documentaries from the first Blu-ray are further supplemented by Warner Bros. with a trio of fascinating new docs related to the real-life people and events that inspired the film. Fans of American Sniper and those among you who have yet to (pun intended) give it a shot might find The Chris Kyle Commemorative Edition to be worthy of a purchase.