Clint Eastwood’s riveting “American Sniper” celebrates patriotism, honor and grit as it follows the life and daring actions of the late Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper).
It also accompanies its protagonist’s moral certainty with moments of ambiguity. Thus, the film encompasses most traits associated with Eastwood.
Though his past as a punk-challenging, on-screen enforcer suggests a guy who thinks he has the answers, Eastwood the director always asks the big questions. About the value of life, the price of liberty and the inevitable repercussions of a violent existence – whether one is an Old West outlaw (“Unforgiven”), Japanese World War II soldier (“Letters From Iwo Jima”) or Kyle, who was known as the deadliest sniper in U.S. history via his four tours in Iraq.
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In “Sniper,” Eastwood counters his protagonist’s determined mindset with doubts expressed by his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), and through foreshadowing. The film, written by Jason Hall from Kyle’s 2012 memoir, acts as kind of an omniscient narrator minus the narration. It lets us in on ideas of which the lead character is not aware, even when he’s the only one in the shot.
Kyle is no dummy. He’s just single-minded. Cooper is superb here, exuding strength and sensitivity in every frame. Texan and former rodeo rider Kyle is sensitive to affronts to the American way of life. Specifically, the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
He takes such things personally, as we see on Cooper’s face when Kyle watches the World Trade Center burning that day, on television. He looks angry and determined rather than shocked.
Later, when he’s killing insurgents in Fallujah (Eastwood shot the Iraq scenes in Morocco and Southern California), he can glean satisfaction. He is protecting Marines under attack, and by extension, the Americans who were under attack on Sept. 11.
Adding 30 pounds of muscle for the role, Cooper beefed up without bro-ing out. Kyle could be from any year in the past 50. He’s solid and dependable. Steady behind a scope, he lies on his stomach for hours, on alert for insurgents, bathroom breaks be damned.
But he’s not some hawk lacking in humanity. He’s unsettled when faced with the prospect of having to shoot a woman and a child who appear to be transporting a grenade. But that prospect is part of his sworn duty to protect the Marines and his country. So he pushes on.
The emphasis Eastwood puts on this scene, however, tells us that such horrific circumstances always affect the psyche, regardless of one’s convictions.
Eastwood creates a high degree of tension in nearly every war scene. The 84-year-old director brings great energy to a sequence involving blinding dust clouds and a seemingly unreachable goal. Smaller moments also transfix, most involving Cooper behind the scope, each breath audible as Kyle assesses the danger factor of the Iraqis in his sights.
Eastwood, through foreshadowing, shows split-second decisions reverberating through months and years. In one scene, Kyle chats with a pregnant Taya, who is back in California, on his cellphone. He ditches the phone when a firefight erupts – just after she tells him they’re having a son. The cumulative effect of such firefights shows later, when he is at home on leave. Distracted, he’s not much help with that baby son.
Taya, played by Miller with steel and wariness before the character becomes disappointingly ordinary in the film’s second half, knows something is off. But Chris Kyle insists he’s fine.
His denial seems, on the surface, like a fine strategy for making it through an event as murky as the Iraq War. What’s the alternative? Acting depressed or railing against the sky, and thus letting down fellow combatants?
Kyle, to be clear, does not seem to see the Iraq War as a mess. But Eastwood, in his omniscience, suggests it was.
Speaking of murky, the real Kyle appears to have been more complicated than the movie version. Kyle reportedly was a teller of tall tales. In July, a jury in a defamation lawsuit brought by former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura debunked Kyle’s claim that Kyle once clocked Ventura in a bar.
But parsing real-life characters and their movie iterations has grown tiresome in this true-story-heavy movie awards season. I choose to believe in movie Kyle, because he’s likable, true and noble. And because it’s a movie.
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller
Director: Clint Eastwood
Rated R (strong and disturbing war violence; language throughout including some sexual references)