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'American Sniper' a heartfelt but disjointed film

It’s tough to decide whether “American Sniper”, the latest directorial effort from Hollywood legend Clint Eastwood, is a biopic or not.

On one hand, the film’s main subject, Chris Kyle, (Bradley Cooper) —dubbed the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history — has an unwavering presence. This is his show for roughly two hours, from the southern boy to the cowboy to the soldier.

On the other hand, Eastwood is ambiguous, almost epileptic, in how he conveys Kyle’s journey. There are clearly destinations that Kyle is supposed to arrive at in terms of how the war affects him, but more often than not while watching “American Sniper,” we arrive at those destinations without ever realizing we were on the journey in the first place.

“American Sniper” is essentially two films. One tells the story of Kyle during his time at home between his four tours in Iraq. These parts of the film are clearly what got “American Sniper” nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Eastwood does an incredible job showing how Kyle’s time in Iraq affects his interaction and relationships, and there is a clear transformation from the always-smiling, somewhat naïve but dutiful Texan we saw at the beginning of the film, and the troubled character he becomes the more he experiences.

The tight, tense focus on Kyle’s inner conflict is by far the strongest aspect of the film. Eastwood has knack for conveying inner struggles.

Kyle’s world changes as he deals with the all-too-real problem of never really returning from war. Although he stresses throughout the film that he is just a soldier doing his duty to his country, it is the things he doesn’t say, do or visibly feel — things that we know pre-Navy Kyle would do — which are fascinating to experience.

In stark contrast, the majority of the film is spent covering the actual conflict in Iraq, which is vastly underwhelming. We all know what to expect from war films. Gunfights. Death. Patriotic undercurrents. Actions so infuriatingly suspicious that sometimes we know what is really happening before the soldiers on the screen do. “American Sniper” presents all these in a manner that is simply all too familiar.

An exception to this weakness is when we get to see Kyle the Sniper do what he does best. The few — two few — scenes where Kyle is providing overwatch, where one small unit provides support for another by observing terrain ahead for his comrades are as tightly filmed as the scope he is attached to. A sequence involving his split-second decision involving an Iraqi child is both memorable and breathtaking. We are able to see what made Chris Kyle so deadly, and it is incredibly entertaining.

Unfortunately, those scenes are too few and far between. Instead, Kyle spends the majority of his time on the ground in what soon becomes nothing more than monotonous Call of Duty-style action on the big screen. The film neglects to add any real interest to the to its time in Iraq, save for an intense gunfight near the end.

The most disappointing aspect of the film is how little the conflict adds to the story. We are able to see the leader Kyle becomes — which, some say is a historical inaccuracy — but it is predictable in its point A to point B narrative. We never really see how the decisions and actions of Kyle the Sniper come around to affect Kyle the American. There are only two or three truly poignant moments during his time overseas when the audience can sympathize with the horrors Kyle experiences.

Cooper is a revelation as Kyle. He has a way of conveying Kyle’s ignorance of his own transformation, with his southern drawl, and lower jaw-jutting smile. It is both believable and powerful. He makes it easy to sympathize with Kyle and what he goes through.

One may wonder how the film might have been different if it utilized the majority of its running time focusing on Kyle’s struggle and the complex, confused character he turns into. Instead, that storyline is forced to compromise and split time with the expendable, mundane, “hoo-rah” military spectacle so engrained in our culture that it doesn’t provide any surprises.

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Bradley Cooper fully comes into his own, portraying a soldier who unknowingly realizes how the war is changing. “American Sniper” is inconsistent in its focus and direction, instead seemingly presenting two different films with their own motives, one vastly superior to the other. As a result, the movie ultimately ends as jarringly as Kyle’s life; there is so much more meant to be that simply isn’t.

David Lynch is a film reviewer and staff reporter for the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at culture@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @RealDavidLynch.

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