American Sniper lifts director Clint Eastwood out of the doldrums that have plagued his last few films. Loosely based on the life of decorated Iraq War veteran Chris Kyle, the movie not only represents the best effort from Eastwood since his Oscar-winning Million Dollar Baby but the finest acting we have seen thus far from two-time nominee Bradley Cooper, who is asked to do (and succeeds in doing) far more here than in any of his past roles. This gripping film recalls (in different ways) aspects of two recent war-related pictures: Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker and Jim Sheridan's Brothers. Although packaged as a thriller, American Sniper has a strong dramatic underpinning that enriches the characters. And, as is always the case, strongly realized individuals populating a movie result in greater tension and suspense because we care about the fates of those involved in the events.
Kyle, who served four tours in Iraq during the 2000s, has 160 confirmed kills to his name - the most of any American sniper. The movie opens with a powerful sequence set in the streets of a small town near Nasiriya, Iraq. It's March 2003 during the initial invasion. Kyle is positioned atop a building overlooking an abandoned street. As U.S. forces approach from one direction, a woman and her son emerge. Sighting her through his scope, Kyle recognizes that she has what appears to be a grenade, which she gives to the boy. Kyle must make a decision: shoot and risk killing an innocent child ("They'll fry you if you're wrong - they'll send you to Leavenworth," his chief cautions him) or hold his fire and risk a catastrophe. It's not an easy decision and Eastwood makes us complicit in Kyle's choice.
The scene, like many in the movie, has been doctored from its real-life counterpart to make for better cinema. The real account, as related in Kyle's autobiography, doesn't include the child. It's just the woman. American Sniper plays fast and loose with the facts in several instances to make it a more compelling movie. Kyle is given an enemy with the name of Mustafa (Sammy Sheik) and there are times when these two appear to be fighting their own private struggle within the war. I have no problems with straying from the historical record in a non-documentary motion picture and at least most of American Sniper's changes work within the film's context.
Following the opening sequence, we are treated to an extended series of flashbacks that encapsulate 25 years into an equal number of minutes. We spend a few short scenes with Kyle as a child, struggle through the mud with him at Basic Training as he learns to be a SEAL (all the while expecting R. Lee Ermey to pop up with a cameo), meets cute his eventual wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), experiences the seismic cultural shift that comes from 9/11, and ships off to Iraq. His kill on that day near Nasiriya is his first but far from his last. In his many years spent in the war-torn country, he participates in many of the major actions and earns the nicknames of "The Devil of Ramadi" (given by the insurgents) and "The Legend" (given by his fellow soldiers).
Eastwood pulls us into the chaos of war without having to resort to shaky handheld cameras - proof, if it was needed, that a capable director can capture the essence of war without having to abandon a tripod. The first 110 minutes of American Sniper represent masterful cinema - taut, smart, formidable stuff. Unfortunately, the movie stalls during its final twenty minutes as it attempts to switch gears and present a theme that other films (like Oliver Stone's Born on the Fourth of July and the aforementioned Brothers) have done better. Nevertheless, the anticlimactic denouement is more muddled than bad and doesn't undo the power of what precedes it.
American Sniper is pretty much Bradley Cooper for 134 minutes. As good as Cooper was in Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, his work here represents a career-best. This is his first transformative role - a part where he has stretched beyond his comfort zone and not been found wanting. As I write this, it's unclear whether the Academy will recognize him but there's little doubt his portrayal, which includes moments of machismo interspersed with instances of pathos and inadequacy - is worthy. A barely recognizable Sienna Miller plays the light and love of Kyle's life and does her best to make Taya more than the token supportive-but-abandoned wife.
American Sniper does no political preaching. Kyle's book drips with patriotism, some of which translates to the screen, but this is no jingoistic piece of propaganda. Neither is it an anti-American hatchet job. Instead, it keeps the rightness or wrongness of the war at arm's length and focuses instead on the struggles of the men in the trenches. This is about their lives, their difficulties, and the demons they must wrestle with both in country and after they return home.
© 2014 James Berardinelli