American Sniper is Clint Eastwood’s best film since Letters from Iwo Jima. Keep in mind that this statement isn’t a ringing endorsement of Sniper but a comment on how lousy Eastwood’s movies have been lately. A passion project of actor and producer Bradley Cooper, American Sniper is based on the memoir of Chris Kyle, a decorated former Navy SEAL sniper who earned the title of “the most lethal sniper in U.S. history.” Kyle built this reputation due to the 160 plus kills he notched up during his four tours of duty in Iraq. Riveting and often immersive during its visceral combat sequences but anemic in its characterization of its hero, Eastwood’s film nevertheless works as a sturdy portrait of the moral and psychological traumas faced by the Americans who serve.
American Sniper opens with an intense sequence that has rightfully been highlighted in nearly every one of its trailers. In it, Kyle, perched on top of a building, sniper rifle in hand and target in sight, has to make a decision of whether or not to kill a young child and his mother who he suspects are insurgents carrying grenades. It’s a grueling moment that sets the tone for the rest of the film. From then on, Eastwood briskly moves from Kyle’s childhood to his tenure as a rodeo cowboy to his enlistment, torturous military training, and his marriage to Taya (Sienna Miller) before eventually being deployed to Iraq. Over the course of his four tours, Kyle’s skill and accuracy as a marksman earn him the title of “Legend” among his colleagues. But as his reputation on the field grows into something of a mythical figure, so does the strain on his family.
Like many of Eastwood’s best films (Unforgiven, Mystic River, Letters from Iwo Jima), American Sniper tackles the nature of violence, in this case war, and how it corrodes the human psyche. Like Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, Eastwood succeeds at putting you in the mindset of a soldier stuck in the middle of a hellish warzone by shooting the scenes from the perspective of these guys, focusing on their camaraderie and brotherly bond. Tom Stern’s suitably gritty cinematography, which utilizes numerous handheld shots and close-ups, keeps the tension high and focused at all times. Eastwood ups the ante by including a parkour-running Iraqi sniper who stalks Kyle for most of the movie. Although this aspect of the film was invented solely for the film, the battle of wits between the two snipers serves to highlight the danger Kyle and his fellow soldiers faced at every moment.
Where American Sniper disappoints is its rather shallow depiction of Chris Kyle himself. The real Kyle was, to put it lightly, a highly controversial figure. Although he was a loving family man who helped hundreds of veterans suffering from PTSD, he was also a flawed individual, prone to mistakes, fabrication and even delusions of grandeur. In short, he was a complex, fascinating human being. But the film does away with all of these controversial elements in service of a characterization that’s nothing short of hagiography.
The Kyle portrayed by Cooper is a flawless propaganda tool who always says and does the right thing. He never voices his frustration with the war, never kills anyone in error, or makes a mistake. This is a character that sees the world as a black-and-white place with hard lines dividing the forces of “good” and “evil.” The question of what compels a man to leave his wife and kids behind to serve four terms, even as they beg him to come home, is never addressed. It’s as if Eastwood and Hall were flat-out terrified of the repercussions of painting Kyle in anything but a rosy light. This extends to Kyle’s relationship with his wife. Although Miller gives it her best, the character, as written by Hall, functions as nothing more than a voice on the other end of the line.
It’s to Cooper’s immense credit that American Sniper remains compulsively watchable, even though Kyle himself remains an enigma. His understated performance is the film’s anchor. Armed with a Texas drawl, 30 extra pounds of muscle and a thick beard, all that render him nearly unrecognizable, the actor all but sheds the fast-talking, neurotic jerk persona he nailed in films like Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. He plays Kyle as a good man burdened by the weight of saving his comrades. He adds moral complexity to the character that on paper has none. He is, in essence, why the film works as well as it does.
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenwriter: Jason Hall
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Luke Grimes, Keir O’Donnell
Producer: Bradley Cooper, Clint Eastwood, Andrew Lazar, Robert Lorenz, Peter Morgan
Running time: 132 minutes
Companies: Warner Brothers
Rating: R for strong and disturbing war violence, and language throughout including some sexual references