‘American Sniper’ Reviews: Academy Praises Bradley Cooper, But Do Critics Think He Hit the Mark?

Clint Eastwood’s Navy SEAL biopic, which earned six Oscars nominations including Best Picture and Best Actor, was mostly on target with critics

American Sniper
Warner Bros.

“American Sniper” earned six Academy Awards nominations on Thursday morning, including for Best Picture and a Best Actor nod for Bradley Cooper, who beefed himself up to play real life Navy SEAL Chris Kyle — the U.S. military’s all-time leader in confirmed kills — and turned in a commanding performance by most accounts.

The nominations committee submitted in their votes well before “American Sniper’s” wide release on Friday, but would the critics offer up as much praise?

In short: Most of them, yes.

“American Sniper” scored a 75 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes with 154 reviews counted, and claimed a Metascore of 72.

TheWrap’s Inkoo Kang, however, was critical of director Clint Eastwood‘s myopic scope and indifference toward the moral implications of war. “Eastwood’s focus on Kyle is so tight that no other character, including wife Taya (Sienna Miller), comes through as a person, and the scope so narrow that the film engages only superficially with the many moral issues surrounding the Iraq War,” she wrote.

“There are no scenes exploring the drudgery of the tedium of war, only more missions,” Kang continued. “The result is not unlike watching a suspenseful but highly repetitive video game, especially since nearly every Iraqi is seen through Kyle’s highly perched rifle scope. The appearance of each Iraqi character incites the same algorithm: shoot or don’t shoot, shoot now or shoot later.”

Here’s how the film fared with other critics:

Richard Corliss praised the film in his “Time” review, saying: “Cooper, who in earlier roles perfected the persona of the sharp conniver, makes a fast, expert U turn from ‘American Hustle’ to American Sniper. Packing an extra 30 or so pounds of beef and beer weight, Cooper gives Chris a galoot’s sincerity,” he said. “He lacks the belligerence of the traditional war lover, allowing himself no Lone Star whoops when he hits a human target.”

The Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern gave thumbs up, too.

“Mr. Eastwood and his colleagues — among them the cinematographer Tom Stern and the screenwriter Jason Hall, working from Chris Kyle’s autobiography — have made a fine, lean film that celebrates patriotism and courage, but with a sharpshooter’s eye for tragedy, the follies of history and the toll that war takes on the warriors,” Corliss wrote.

L.A. Times critic Kenneth Turan was especially impressed by the cinematography and expertly-edited battle sequences. “Working with his expert editing team of Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach and cinematographer Tom Stern, Eastwood’s impeccably crafted action sequences so catch us up in the chaos of combat we are almost not aware that we’re watching a film at all,” he wrote. “‘American Sniper’ is at its best when it deals with the assembly-line-of-death relentlessness of combat for Kyle, how it simultaneously consumes him and wears him down, and how, to his wife’s distress, it turns the civilian life he returns to between tours of duty into the aberration, not the norm.”

David Denby of The New Yorker praised Eastwood’s direction, at one point comparing him to Hitchcock.

“Eastwood’s command of this material makes most directors look like beginners. As Kyle and his men ride through rubble-strewn Iraqi cities, smash down doors, and race up and down stairways, the camera records what it needs to fully dramatize a given event, and nothing more. There’s no waste, never a moment’s loss of concentration, definition, or speed,” Turan continued. “The general atmosphere of the cities, and the scattered life of the streets, gets packed into the action. The movie, of course, makes us uneasy, and it is meant to. Like Hitchcock in ‘Rear Window’ and Michael Powell in ‘Peeping Tom,’ Eastwood puts us inside the camera lens, allowing us to watch the target in closeup as Kyle pulls the trigger.”

Michael O’Sullivan of the Washington Post thought the war aspects were well done, but lamented the film’s lack of focus on Cooper’s “savior complex,” writing: “For the most part, ‘American Sniper’ is less interested in pursuing these and other questions of moral and psychological nuance than in telling a good war story.

The New York Times’ A.O. Scott didn’t offer much praise for “American Sniper,” explaining how Eastwood’s refusal to tackle the politics of the Iraq War was itself tacit approval.

“The politics of the Iraq war are entirely absent, which is a political statement in its own right. And though George W. Bush’s name is never invoked, ‘American Sniper’ can be seen as an expression of nostalgia for his Manichaean approach to foreign policy,” he wrote. “It can equally –and this may amount to the same thing — be seen as upholding the Hollywood western tradition of turning complicated historical events and characters into fables and heroes. In other words, it’s only a movie.”

Meanwhile, the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips didn’t think “Sniper” was much of a character study. “The sharpest scene, featured in TV ads for the film, finds Kyle back from another tour,” he wrote. “Eastwood spends an extra second or two with Cooper as he fights to keep it together. This complicates and deepens our understanding of a man who, too often in ‘American Sniper,’ is a collection of stalwart patriotic virtues rather than a three-dimensional slice of real life.

“If only the rest of the film were as strong and troubling as that bar scene,” he adds. “‘American Sniper’ gins up all sorts of conflict, treating Kyle’s beady-eyed Syrian sniper counterpart, Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), as a skillful but vaguely subhuman adversary. The climactic showdown between these two leads to Eastwood’s most shameless techniques — cliched slow motion just when you expect it, an audience-baiting ‘kill’ shot complete with cheeseball bullet’s-point-of-view trajectory.”

Amy Nicholson of The Village Voice was one of the harshest critics, most notably of how Eastwood film portrayed Cooper’s character Kyle, seemingly oblivious to his real life flaws. “The humble Kyle onscreen is Kyle with his flaws written out. We’re not watching a biopic. We’re watching a drama about an idealized soldier, a patriot beyond reproach, which bolsters Kyle’s legend while gutting the man,” she wrote.