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In the 1930s and 1940s, Hollywood loved movies called “The Big Something”. These days it’s “American Something” (American Hustle, American Beauty, American Psycho, American History X, American Pie, American Graffiti, The American President, An American Tale, American Dreamz, Wet Hot American Summer et cetera and so forth). However, the title American Sniper is rather apt here, since Clint Eastwood’s uneasy meditation on Iraq is largely about being an American as well as being a sniper.

Two quick announcements before we proceed. Firstly, read on with caution – there will be spoilers. Secondly, this will be a rather indecisive review of a rather indecisive film. Okay. Ready, aim, fire…

Yet another awards-season biopic, this movie wears its true life credentials a little more lightly than The Irritation Game or The Theory of Nothing. Protagonist Chris Kyle is drawn from real life, but he’s nowhere near as famous as Britain’s beloved wheelchair boffin, or the Father of Modern Computing™. The first third of the movie is by far the most satisfying, build around a neat structural device as Navy SEAL Kyle targets a woman and child in the streets of Iraq and has to decide whether or not the object which they are carrying presents a threat to the American troops below. From here, we flip back to his youth, and young adulthood, but although the movie’s chronology darts all over the place, Director Eastwood doesn’t need captions or clunky dialogue to tell us where or when we are (four captions numbering off Kyle’s four tours of duty are all we ever get). Throughout his style is simple, economical and effective – with one exception as we’ll see.

Once Kyle becomes a grown-up, he is portrayed by a physically pumped-up but emotionally restrained Bradley Cooper. As a young man, chatting up Sienna Miller in a bar, and later in basic training, he is pinkly buff, like an over-inflated child’s toy, but as the war wears on, he becomes leaner, more grizzled. The bar scene is a neat one. Nothing very striking or new about it – you’ve seen similar scenes dozens of times before – but it’s hard to pick out a cliché in Jason Hall’s dialogue, and both stars give it life and specificity.

Once the narrative circle closes at the end of Act One, however, two things happen. The first is that the genre demands of a war movie start to make themselves felt. I have no idea how much of what happens in American Sniper is accurate, but I don’t have the same complaints that I had about the Turing biopic. Nothing in the Eastwood movie violates logic, but Kyle does quickly become a one-man army, taking charge of another division’s operations without orders, and uncovering hidden gun caches all on his own. And when we start narrowing the scope of the conflict down to a crazed war lord who murders children with a drill to the head, I can’t help but feel that the Prestige War is Hell movie has been hijacked by Rambo, or more aptly Dirty Harry. So, when a young marine starts showing off his new engagement ring, is it too much to hope that the improbably named “Biggles” won’t be next in line for a bullet? Bang! Yup, I guess so.

The second thing which happens is that we start flipping between Kyle’s life in Iraq and his life back home with wife Miller and suitably adorable kids. There’s a suggestion here that the emotional walls which Kyle has to erect in order to sustain his sanity in the madness of the war-zone make it impossible to fully function back in a domestic environment. His chipper, single-minded, simple-headed philosophy of “America first” begins to contrast quite strongly with the mess, chaos and lack of order he faces in Fallujah, and the pointless, saccharine quality of his suburban married life at home.

But while I admire the restraint shown in avoiding giving movie-Kyle the kind of full-blown melt-down, or colossal epiphany which real-life Kyle evidently did not have, as a movie experience it constantly simmers but never quite comes to the boil. This is perhaps why some viewers have read it as an anti-war polemic and other as a blood-soaked paean to the glories of warfare. Eastwood just gives us the story and lets us make up our own minds. This is an admirable stance, but a rather unsatisfying way of making a movie.

So, we avoid the movie-of-the-week cocksure young man who learns Important Lessons About Life and who Returns from the Theatre of War a Different Man rubbish, but we also avoid a third act. After a rather touching sequence in which Kyle befriends a number of injured veterans, the film ends very abruptly, as did Kyle’s own life. The circumstances of his death are unclear and don’t in any way form a continuation of the human story and thus are wisely omitted, and so the real third act of the movie comes twenty minutes earlier when the genre demands take hold completely, and we get an extremely well-executed and very suspenseful sequence in which Kyle makes an impossible shot to take out his Iraqi counterpart, and no doubt saves American lives by doing so. But he also calls attention to his team’s position and there follows a tremendous firefight and last minute panicky extraction in the middle of a dust-storm.

Well done though it is, this is pure boys own adventure stuff, which would not have been out-of-place in any moderate intelligent action thriller. The only bum note is the ridiculous CGI slow-motion bullet which whistles over a mile across an Iraqi cityscape, (which is the Eastwood’s one slip) but even without that, all of the complexity, both human and political, just drops clean out of the movie at this point.

So, what to make of American Sniper? Well, I’m certainly grateful that for all the compressing, simplifying and streamlining which is an inevitable part of the process of turning messy reality into a two hour movie, we haven’t ended up with something as plastic and hollow as the Turing or Hawking biopics. However, Eastwood only has himself to blame if people are reading the movie in a way other than he intended, since it’s very hard to work out just what he’s trying to say here. Kyle is altered by his four tours of duty, but less so (physically and emotionally) than many others we see and hear about. The Iraq conflict appears to be mismanaged and to lack any real coordination, but there’s no attempt at a Green Zone-style analysis of just how the point of going to war got lost somewhere between the politicians and the generals. And after that sparky bar scene, Sienna Miller just becomes “the wife” and the scenes with Kyle back home are frustratingly generic for the most part.

Bradley Cooper’s restrained performance fills in a few of these gaps – the contrast between the cocky young cowboy in his twenties and the sober veteran in his thirties is well executed, but quite what point Eastwood was trying to make I could not tell you. And whether this would have been a better or a worse movie if he’d make that point more clearly – well I can’t tell you that either.

As that concludes my viewing of the Best Picture nominees, let me have a go at a few predictions. After a generally rotten performance in most previous years, I did manage 100% success in our Oscars sweepstake last year, so here are my current thoughts about the top categories.

Best Picture must surely go to Boyhood. It’s the bookies’ favourite by a long way and is scooping up a lot of awards all over the place.

Best Director I’m not sure about. While these two awards often go in lock-step I have a feeling that Alejandro Iñárritu might have a better shot that Richard Linklater, simply because Birdman looks so stunning.

Best Actor and Best Actress are both pretty easy to call. Nothing the Academy likes better than a disability and so Eddie Redmayne and Julianne Moore both better have speeches ready.

Best Supporting Actor will very likely go to JK Simmons, and deservedly so. Best Supporting Actress I think might go to Patricia Arquette. She’s probably the best thing in Boyhood and she just scooped the BAFTA, so she must be in with a shout.

Best Original Screenplay is a tough one to call with Birdman, Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel all having strong claims. I’ve got a hunch that Budapest is going to do well overall and it’s probably the best screenplay of the lot, as a piece of literature.

Best Adapted Screenplay is a touch more straightforward. If we discount the flabby boffin biopics, and remove too-controversial American Sniper and too-divisive Inherent Vice from the running, we are left with Whiplash which may benefit from the extra attention it got due to its bizarre placing int this category – but that might work out well for Chazelle.

My Star Trek movie reviews will resume next week, and I’ll also have a report on the ceremony and the winners and losers shortly after the big show on 22 February.