“American Sniper” Casting Review

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

One of the best offshoots of watching a film that is also a biopic is the fact that you get to learn about a fascinating individual or group of people that you might have otherwise overlooked–assuming you’re not already familiar with the source material, of course. That is how I felt coming out of American Sniper, the latest biopic to hit theaters this season. Although the backdrop was familiar enough (the United States’ recent war on terror in Iraq), the film offers a different perspective–told through the eyes of real life war veteran and decorated Navy S.E.A.L. sniper Chris Kyle.

Directed by Clint Eastwood, American Sniper, is the director’s third biopic in recent years (the other two being Jersey Boys and J. Edgar), but unlike the former two films, Chris Kyle isn’t as universally recognizable or familiar (mainly because he’s a relatively new public figure compared to the former), which adds a layer of mystique and grounded realism to the piece. In a nutshell, Chris was not only a Navy S.E.A.L. sniper and war veteran, he also happened to be unofficially dubbed as the “most lethal sniper in American military history.” He achieved this status with 160 confirmed kills out of 255 probable kills, which were a result of having served four tours in the Iraq War. Given these facts and the setting of them, there is most definitely a story to be told from Chris’ life, which is where this film comes in.

The movie opens on a tense situation–Chris, perched in a sniper position surveying the war torn city around him. He suddenly spots two Iraqi civilians–a woman and a young boy. Although the two seem like innocent bystanders, through Chris’ observations, he realizes they are concealing a deadly explosive with their eyes set on the squadron of troops Chris has been tasked to protect. As Chris mulls over his impossible decision, he recounts the earlier years of his life and what brought him to this very precipice. Academy Award-nominated actor Bradley Cooper plays the iconic sniper, and only continues to solidify his status as a critically-acclaimed actor. Although Cooper has been a well-known and established actor for years, he only recently gained critical attention, specifically after his nominated performance in 2012’s smash hit Silver Linings Playbook, where he played opposite Jennifer Lawrence–who consequently won herself an Oscar for that film. Cooper, like Lawrence, has achieved the much coveted Hollywood status where he is highly sought after for both independent/critically acclaimed project,s as well as for big budget studio tentpoles. Prior to American Sniper, Cooper reprised his role in the blockbuster comedy franchise The Hangover Part III, reteamed with director David O. Russell in American Hustle, and then most recently played the voice of ‘Rocket Raccoon’ in Marvel Studios’ summer hit Guardians of the Galaxy. Who wouldn’t envy Cooper with these recent string of credits?

Getting back to the film–Cooper’s portrayal of the famed sniper is exactly what you would expect a sniper to be–precise, focused, and subdued. Snipers, especially ones in the Iraqi War, are constantly thrust between a rock and a hard place with the decisions they have to call. They are constantly weighing in their minds to shoot or not to shoot, readily knowing that whomever they decide to shoot will most likely meet his or her end. Because of this responsibility, snipers naturally have to exercise an unbelievable amount of patience, restraint, and conviction, since their very actions decide whether or not someone lives or dies. This is the approach Cooper takes as Chris, and his performance throughout the entire film is very much tight and always in control. Having this kind of stone-faced approach to his performance is no easy task, since Cooper has to show just enough vulnerability and emotion so that he (and in turn Chris) don’t come off as completely robotic, and therefore unlikeable. Cooper definitely succeeds in this approach and is able to show just enough cracks in his armor to give a glimpse at the kind of emotional and physical struggles Chris experienced on and off the battlefield.

The casting approach in American Sniper, whether or not it was intentional, accentuates the feelings of loneliness and isolation Chris experienced. War movies like this could have easily utilized a large ensemble cast of A-list actors, a la Fury, Black Hawk Down, and Saving Private Ryan, especially with people like Clint Eastwood and Cooper at the film’s helm. Rather than buoy the film with a plethora of characters, American Sniper keeps things relatively low key–relying on lesser-known and up-and-coming actors. The one exception to this worth noting is the role of Chris’ wife, “Taya”, played by Sienna Miller. As Chris’ better half, Taya has her work cut out for her as she tries to juggle being a wife and single mother while Chris is out on his multiple tours. Naturally, Taya has her share of an emotional journey, and one can even say that she is the film’s emotional outlet, i.e., the wealth of emotions that Chris should be portraying is ultimately conveyed through her as she struggles to cope with her situation.

Miller’s performance here further fuels the British actresses’ continued rise through the Hollywood ranks. Like most successful crossover artists, Miller got her start establishing herself as an actress in the U.K., working on British projects like Layer Cake and Alfie, before landing parts in more commercial films, namely Stardust, and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. Similarly to Cooper, Miller seems to now be turning her focus on grittier, character-focused projects, which is the best way for an actor to prove that they have not only have commercial viability, but also true thespian talents. Miller has also been on a hot streak this season, and can also be seen opposite Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum in the film Foxcatcher, which has already been garnering its own fair share of attention. Interestingly, she plays Ruffalo’s wife In Foxcatcher, another biopic film that ends in (Foxcatcher Spoiler) Ruffalo’s character’s tragic death. And, further spoiler alert, Miller’s Taya also has to experience a similar tragic loss at the end of American Sniper–Chris is abruptly killed in the film’s end. Although both of these films have definitely helped to launch Miller’s career to the next level, it’s darkly amusing that her roles in both were playing wives whose husbands get murdered.

Although Miller’s Taya very much plays a large role in the movie and in Chris’ life, the film’s focus is still very much on Chris. Once again, although the film has plenty of characters–namely, the numerous soldiers, commanding officers, and enemy terrorists in Chris’ life–they are never fully developed, and are treated mainly as periphery. This isn’t to say that the supporting actors in this film aren’t memorable, and in fact there are several notable folks worth mentioning–specifically Jonathan Groff, Sam Jaeger, Kyle Gallner, Jake McDorman, and Luke Grimes. Groff plays a grateful soldier who approaches Chris at an auto shop to thank him for saving his life, while McDorman plays “Ryan Job”, a fellow soldier who strikes up a friendship with Chris but is ultimately badly wounded on Chris’ watch.

Although an argument can be made that more time could have been spent expanding upon Chris’ relationships with his fellow soldiers, the fact that his moments with them are so fleeting only further highlights the hardships of being a sniper, especially someone in Chris’ position. Being a sniper, a position that tends to be more isolating compared to the troops on the ground, Chris still has to deal with a problem nearly every soldier has to face–getting close to the people around him. Although befriending your fellow soldiers sounds completely normal (and necessary), forming these attachments also makes you vulnerable to becoming hurt if/when that friend is killed in the line of duty–something that is all too common in war times. This fleeting aspect of the supporting characters in the film only further emphasizes the need for Chris to distance himself from those around him at times, which you can subtly pick up on while watching Cooper’s performance. These insights not only help to shed light on Chris as a person, but the kinds of issues that almost everyone in the armed services has to deal with.

Amongst the plethora of biopic films this season, American Sniper stands out as a hard-hitting reminder of what members of our military go through, and why they should be honored and celebrated. Although the film has a grand scale backdrop, the narrative is intimate and poignant–similar to the life of Chris Kyle.

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