I don’t have the highest opinion of Clint Eastwood (Trouble With the Curve) when it comes to his political leanings, but I cannot deny that his legendary status in Hollywood was cemented long ago. His illustrious body of work includes seminal roles in some of the most iconic films in modern American cinema, but in the second half of his career he has proven to be even more skilled behind the camera, giving us a horde of Academy Award winning films from Million Dollar Baby to Mystic River. In American Sniper he paints a harrowing picture of the devastating effects of war, offering an unflinching glimpse into one man’s heroic service.
Bradley Cooper (American Hustle) gives a tour-de-force performance as Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in American military history. Like fellow S.E.A.L. Marcus Luttrell (portrayed by Mark Wahlberg in last year’s Lone Survivor) Kyle’s exploits have become the stuff of lore, and both have been subsequently immortalized in film. We are introduced to Kyle as a typical salt of the earth Texan. Spurred to enlist after 9/11, Kyle undergoes grueling boot camp preparation before being deployed to Iraq for the first of four tours.
Two of the most heart-stopping scenes in the film perfectly captured the split second judgment calls he had to make as a sniper. In the first, a mother and son are alternately carrying a missile, and he is forced to eliminate them both. The boy couldn’t have been older than 8, and Kyle took his life with little hesitation. The other scene also involved a child and a weapon, but this time the outcome was different. One is left with the startling realization that Kyle could accept either scenario with no compunction. Kyle was fearless and resolute in battle, but like many soldiers, he found stateside re-acclimation challenging. His relationship with his wife Taya (Sienna Miller, Foxcatcher) was strained because he was often absent, leaving her to raise their two children alone. Taya felt that he’d prefer the company of his comrades to his own family, a notion that Kyle did little to dispel – particularly after returning for a third and fourth tour of duty.
I realize that whether or not you lionize or demonize a particular sniper probably depends on what side he’s fighting for. As the title indicates, American Sniper is heavy on American notions of valor and patriotism. I personally don’t buy into the “rah rah America” narrative, and I choose to evaluate the film on its cinematic merits rather than the propaganda it pushes. That aside, I never questioned Kyle’s belief in the task before him, and I commend him for his unwavering service. Some have expressed an opinion that snipers are cowards, but Chris Kyle didn’t just hide behind his rifle – he got his hands dirty too.
Cooper has easily given the performance of his career, equaling his Oscar nominated turn in Silver Linings Playbook, and surpassing his work in American Hustle. He’s shown flashes of greatness throughout his career and has outdone himself here. His physical and emotional transformation was amazing, and he completely embodied Chris Kyle, from the brawny physique to the Texas drawl. His character’s emotions hurtled from one extreme to the next, and Cooper was pitch perfect throughout. His character’s post-traumatic stress was authentic, and we watched him grasp at normalcy upon his return. This type of film can easily become overrated, due to its subject matter. I think it’s a movie people will want to like, but notions of patriotism aside – I thought it was a well-crafted film that relies heavily on its star, whose presence was undeniable. I think 2015 is off to a good start in film. Grade: A-