American Sniper and Blackhat
Bradley Cooper commandeers Clint Eastwood's powerful war movie, Chris Hemsworth withers in Michael Mann's cyber-crime misfire.
Whatever Clint Eastwood's exact politics may be—kind of libertarian? sort of conservative?—his new movie, American Sniper, waves no flags for America's involvement in the Iraq War. In recounting the true story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, said to be the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history, Eastwood marshals deep feelings about the moral and physical destruction of war, and flashing anger toward the higher-ups who guide young warriors to their doom. He doesn't flinch from showing us the full ugliness of combat—American forces violently invading an Iraqi home, a vicious jihadi taking a power drill to a helpless civiliian—but this is in no way an old-school Hollywood war movie. Eastwood never exults in the brutal action, and throughout the film we can feel his disgust.
Over the course of four tours in Iraq, Kyle was credited with 160 confirmed enemy kills, and was probably responsible for many more that were undocumented. The man had a terrible gift. Bradley Cooper, who acquired the film rights to Kyle's bestselling 2012 memoir early on, plays him here, bearded and bulked-up, in a performance of intense focus. Cooper has come a very long way from his breakthrough in Wedding Crashers 10 years ago. Here he portrays a difficult character, a man whose emotions are held tightly inside, by subtly projecting those feelings without parading them before us. This is a wonder to watch throughout.
We're introduced to Kyle on a rooftop in Fallujah, sighting his rifle on the street below, alert for targets. He sees an Iraqi woman stepping into the street with a boy who could be her son. She hands the boy a weapon she has brought out from beneath her chador as they both watch an American convoy that's making its way toward them through the rubble of the city. Kyle's duty is alarmingly clear, but his soul is torn.
To illustrate Kyle's divided nature, Eastwood fills in his backstory with compelling economy, flashing back to his Texas childhood. We see him out hunting with his father (Ben Reed), dropping a deer with a difficult shot. We see the whole family in church, and later, at the family dinner table, hear his father explaining his stern view of the world. There are three kinds of people, he says: sheep, who "don't believe evil exists"; wolves, the evil men who prey upon them; and sheepdogs, men with "the gift of aggression," a "rare breed that lives to confront the wolf." Kyle knows which sort of man his father wants him to be.
Appalled by the 1998 Al Qaeda attacks on US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Kyle enlists in the Navy and trains to join the SEALs, the service's elite sea-air-and-land division. In a bar one night, talking to Taya (Sienna Miller), the woman who will soon become his wife, he tells her, "I'd lay down my life for my country. It's the greatest country on earth."
When Kyle deploys to Iraq for the first time, Eastwood shows us how he reconciles his deepest beliefs—his religious faith, his patriotism, his family values—with his duties as, essentially, a professional killer. He appears to have no interest in the political forces in which he's caught up, and this enables him to tightly narrow his focus. He wants only to protect his fellow fighters, and to dispatch the evil enemies who seek to annihilate them. Nothing else matters. But his determination to maintain this difficult mental balance begins eating him up inside.
The movie is masterfully shot and edited. It's also unexpectedly intimate, especially in the scenes with Cooper and Miller, who have a rich chemistry. Miller's Taya is a high-spirited woman who loves her husband and the kids they've begun accruing, but is distraught as she watches him turning into a stranger, spooked and uncomfortable at home and repeatedly drawn back to the never-ending war. "You did your part," she tells him. "Let somebody else go… If you think this war isn't changing you, you're wrong." But Kyle keeps returning to Iraq, where he does legendary things (taking out one jihadi killer from more than a mile away) and awful things as well. He also has to listen to fatuous officers make statements like, "These wars are won and lost in the minds of our enemies," a line at which we can almost see Eastwood cringing in revulsion.
There surely was more to the real Chris Kyle than what we see here. (He was shot to death two years ago, ironically by a troubled veteran he'd been trying to help.) But Eastwood uses the key aspects of Kyle's life with determined purpose. He doesn't seek to arouse us with the slaughter amid which the celebrated sniper spent so many of his days—the massacred civilians, the dying SEALs choking on their own blood—but to make us think about it. It's not a pretty picture, but Eastwood has made a powerful film out of it.
It's hard to imagine why any director would want to make this movie, let alone Michael Mann. Blackhat is a cyber-crime exercise that is glaringly ridiculous at some points and generally ridiculous throughout. For this we can refrain from thanking Morgan Davis Foehl, the movie's first-time screenwriter, whose day job appears to be working as an assistant film editor, most recently on a pair of Adam Sandler pictures. Foehl's script is several rewrites short of so-so, but Mann—a director who once gave us movies like Manhunter and The Insider—must have felt he could overcome its abundant shortcomings by simple exertion of his famous style (pastel lighting, moody synth beds and such). He was wrong about this.
The movie begins with a computer-malware attack that blows up a Chinese nuke plant. This is shortly followed by a similar cyber-invasion of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, an assault that plays havoc with the price of soy futures. Neither Chinese intel nor the American FBI knows what's going on, but one man thinks he might. He's a young Chinese military officer named Chen (Wang Leehom), and he reaches out across the political divide to offer his services to the Bureau. There's a catch, though—Chen needs to be reteamed with his old MIT roommate, Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), a computer genius who, to MIT's shame, no doubt, is now in prison for a big-time hacking caper.
The FBI, personified here by Agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis), reluctantly accepts Chen's deal, and when he and Nick are reunited, we see that Chen has brought along his cute sister, Lien (Tang Wei). Lien is a computer wizard, too, although her chief talent seems to be rolling over for godlike blond hacker outlaws who look like Chris Hemsworth. At one point, rather suddenly, she and Nick, bathed in a blue glow that's pure Miami Vice, have sex; not too long afterward, discussing his sister with Nick, Chen says, "I've never seen her happier." This tells you all you need to know about women, I guess.
Globe-trotting is a requisite feature of movies like this, and Mann dutifully saddles up. First there's some business in Los Angeles, in a (very nicely lit) Koreatown restaurant, where Nick, acting on a hunch, makes his way to a storeroom, finds a computer, and quickly learns that he and his colleagues must leave immediately for Hong Kong. There, Mann gives us some by-now-standard nighttime helicopter shots of the gleaming city, and Nick and company face off against a squad of murderous thugs in the employ of a mysterious criminal mastermind (a character who turns out to be one of the biggest letdowns in the annals of super-villainy). There's quite a bit of shooting and much running around through narrow Hong Kong byways, none of it especially special. Then Nick and Lien are off to Jakarta, and then Kuala Lumpur. Although they carry no luggage, our on-the-run lovebirds remain surprisingly well-groomed. (In one scene, Lien busts out a stylish white business suit and we wonder… well, by this late point we can't manage much more than a shrug.)
The actors are fine, but they're done in by the awful script. Davis is wasted in a role that's barely written; and Hemsworth, who was so affecting as the race-car champion in Ron Howard's Rush, is stranded in shots of mopey contemplation and furrowed-brow keyboard-tapping. The surprisingly cruddy-looking cinematography, which might be a tribute to vintage straight-to-video flicks, is another insurmountable impediment. You might think that a director with Mann's resumé could deliver a tighter, smarter, more well-wrought movie than this one. Bummer you'd be wrong.