Directed by Clint Eastwood in what some may take as alarmingly short order following “Jersey Boys” (which was released only six months ago, for heaven’s sake), “American Sniper” proves the dictum “never count an auteur out” by proving itself as Eastwood’s strongest directorial effort since 2009's underrated “Invictus” pretty much right out of the starting gate. Opening with a brutally suspenseful moment of decision for its titular character, Chris Kyle, the movie establishes all of the things it’s going to be about—and the things it’s not going to be about—with plain but almost breathtaking assurance.
“Sniper” is based on a true story that got more complicated after Kyle himself told it in the book that gives the film its title. Adapted from that book by actor-turned-screenwriter Jason Dean Hall, the story begins, after its Iraq-set prologue, showing Kyle as first a boy and then a young man. A schoolyard bullying incident compels Kyle’s father (Ben Reed) to give a scary dinner-table fire-and-brimstone speech to Chris and younger brother Jeff about showing would-be tough guys who’s boss (“we protect our own”); the weight of expectation seems to jam the two boys down, and in a flash-forward to the boys as young men, they’re leading the aimless lives of wannabe rodeo stars. That all changes when Chris decides to apply to join the Special Forces (the film depicts him doing so after seeing TV coverage of the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya). As he’s developing a new sense of purpose while training, he also meets future wife Taya (Sienna Miller). Post 9/11, the war in Iraq puts Kyle to work as a sharpshooter, and the film depicts his skills in this area as almost eerie.
They were so in real life, too, as it happens; Kyle racked up 160 confirmed kills, making him the deadliest such operative in U.S. Navy history. Eastwood’s handling of various battle scenarios, including those in which Kyle is compelled to take down women and children, is typically anti-elaborate for the director. Grim, purposeful, compelling. Violence and its relation to both American history and the American character is one of Eastwood’s great themes as both a filmmaker and a film actor. But he is not a director of an overly analytical or intellectualizing bent, and this turns out to be one of this movie’s great strengths. It has nothing to say about whether the war in Iraq was a good or bad idea. It simply IS, and Kyle is an actor in it, and he’s also a devoted husband and father. But Kyle is more than just an actor in the war: he’s a true believer in what he’s doing, and his intensity in this respect bleeds into his relationships back at home in ways that can’t help but be unsettling. When a fellow soldier is killed in a raid, Kyle returns to the U.S. to attend the funeral.
At the graveside, a relative of the soldier’s reads one of his last letters, expressing doubt and disappointment about the war. On the drive home Chris avers to Taya that what killed his friend was “that letter.” Taya doesn’t know how to respond; the viewer likely doesn’t, either, or at least shouldn’t. The role of Taya (well-played by Sienna Miller; this and her turn in “Foxcatcher” represent a release from Movie Jail for the actress) could have been another stock Complaining Military Wife in other hands. In this film, she’s more complex; she clearly knows that the qualities she admires/loves in Kyle—his rigid loyalty and sharp focus, his determination to see his commitments through—are inextricable from his identity as a military operative. But even a warrior as devoted as Kyle can’t escape being messed with by his mission. As the film continues, and the sniper’s rep grows more fearsome, the nature of his accomplishments gets messier and messier, and by the time the sniper has completed his tour, the viewer has good reason to be a little, or more than a little, frightened by the guy. But Taya is not. This puts the whole story on an oddly suspended note that, as it happens, is resolved by a real-life ending that’s not very Hollywood.
Star Bradley Cooper does some of his best acting ever here. Bulked up to make himself resemble, with respect to body shape, a large-scale nine-volt battery, Cooper suppresses the actorly knowingness he’s brought to most of his prior screen roles and gives his character here a simultaneous credulousness and edge. He feels like a dangerous guy—but not a malicious one. His lack of self-doubt never comes off as alienating in its steadfastness, even at moments when it seems like it’s misplaced, as when Kyle finds out for the last time that he can’t really be his brother’s keeper. Moments such as that one, and they are strewn throughout the movie, are what make “American Sniper” one of the more tough-minded and effective war pictures of post-American-Century American cinema.
A skillful, straightforward combat picture gradually develops into something more complex and ruminative in Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper,” an account of the Iraq War as observed through the rifle sights of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, whose four tours of duty cemented his standing as the deadliest marksman in U.S. military history. Hard-wiring the viewer into Kyle’s battle-scarred psyche thanks to an excellent performance from a bulked-up Bradley Cooper, this harrowing and intimate character study offers fairly blunt insights into the physical and psychological toll exacted on the front lines, yet strikes even its familiar notes with a sobering clarity that finds the 84-year-old filmmaker in very fine form. Depressingly relevant in the wake of recent headlines, Warners’ Dec. 25 release should drum up enough grown-up audience interest to work as a serious-minded alternative to more typical holiday fare, and looks to extend its critical and commercial reach well into next year.
Although Steven Spielberg was set to direct before exiting the project last summer (just a few months after Kyle’s death in Texas at the age of 38), “American Sniper” turns out to be very much in Eastwood’s wheelhouse, emerging as arguably the director’s strongest, most sustained effort in the eight years since his WWII double-header of “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters From Iwo Jima.” As was clear in those films and this one, few directors share Eastwood’s confidence with large-scale action, much less his inclination to investigate the brutality of what he shows us — to acknowledge both the pointlessness and the necessity of violence while searching for more honest, ambiguous definitions of heroism than those to which we’re accustomed. In these respects and more, Kyle — who earned the nickname “Legend” from his fellow troops, achieved a staggering record of 160 confirmed kills, and became one of the most coveted targets of the Iraqi insurgency — makes for a uniquely fascinating and ultimately tragic case study.
We first meet Kyle (Cooper) as he’s hunched over a rooftop overlooking a blown-out structure in Fallujah, Iraq, taking deadly aim at a local woman and her young son walking some distance away; only Kyle’s specific vantage allows him to see that they’re preparing to lob a grenade at nearby Marines. The fraught situation and its queasy-making stakes thus introduced, the film abruptly flashes back some 30-odd years to Kyle’s Texas childhood, establishing him as a skilled shooter at a young age (played by Cole Konis) as well as a brave protector to his younger brother, Jeff (Luke Sunshine). After a brief rodeo career, Cooper’s Kyle joins the ranks of the Navy SEALs, whose brutal training regimen — including the muddy beachfront endurance tests of the dreaded Hell Week — is depicted more extensively here than they were in last year’s military-memoir adaptation “Lone Survivor.”
As scripted by Jason Hall (paring down Kyle’s 2012 autobiography, written with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice), these flashbacks form the film’s most conventional stretch, including a tartly humorous scene at a bar where Kyle charms his way past the defenses of the beautiful Taya (Sienna Miller), despite her early claim that she’d never date one of those “arrogant, self-centered pricks” who call themselves SEALs. Yet Kyle belies that description, revealing himself as a God-fearing, red-blooded American galvanized into fighting, as so many were, by the shock of 9/11 and his determination to avenge his country. Indeed, the ink is barely dry on his and Taya’s marriage license when Kyle gets shipped off to Fallujah, where he and his comrades are well served by his exceptional abilities as a sniper.
It’s here that the story catches up with that tense mother-and-child setup, this time not sparing us the gruesome, inevitable aftermath. Describing his actions to a fellow soldier, Kyle breathes, “That was evil like I had never seen before” — a statement that lingers meaningfully as we watch him racking up kill after kill, efficiently dispatching the male Iraqi insurgents he spies surreptitiously arming themselves in a back alley, or driving a car bomb in the direction of American soldiers. In each of these life-or-death scenarios, Kyle must use what little time he has to swiftly assess whether his targets indeed pose an immediately actionable threat, lest he face recriminations from lawyers, liberals and other members of the Blame America First crowd (a point the book drives home far more vehemently than the film).
Not surprisingly, Eastwood avoids wading into the ideological murk of the situation and sticks tightly to Kyle’s p.o.v., yielding an almost purely experiential view of the conflict in which none of the other soldiers becomes more than a two-dimensional sketch, dates and locations are rarely identified, and any larger geopolitical context has been deliberately elided. (Some details have clearly been fudged; Kyle says he’s 30 when he enlists, but he was actually in his mid-20s.) Yet the achievement of “American Sniper” is the way it subtly undermines and expands its protagonist’s initially gung-ho worldview, as Eastwood deftly teases out any number of logistical and ethical complications: Kyle’s frustration at always having to engage from a distance rather than on the ground with his comrades; the sometimes difficult collaboration between the SEALs and the less well-trained Marines, especially when they begin the dangerous task of clearing out Iraqi houses; and above all, the near-impossibility of figuring out whom to trust in an environment where everyone is presumed hostile.
This becomes especially crucial when Kyle and company receive orders to take down the Al Qaeda terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his vicious second-in-command, the Butcher (Mido Hamada), named in part for his imaginative use of power drills. The hunt for the Butcher — and, eventually, a Syrian-born sniper named Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), whose lethal precision rivals Kyle’s own — leads the troops into a series of breathless skirmishes, from a horrific Al Qaeda attack on the family of an Iraqi sheikh (Navid Negahban) to a nighttime ambush that develops as a result of Kyle’s extraordinary perceptiveness in a seemingly benign situation. Working as usual with d.p. Tom Stern and editors Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach, Eastwood handles these ambitious setpieces with an unfussy professionalism worthy of his subject, the camera maintaining a gritty, ground-level feel (with the exception of a few crane shots demanded by the complex staging of the film’s climactic shootout) while switching deftly among a range of perspectives that nonetheless maintain a strong continuity of action.
Less adroitly handled are the regular cutaways to Taya and their two children back in Texas, providing necessary but over-emphatic reminders that Kyle’s loved ones are paying dearly for his military service. Taya seems to have a bad habit of catching her husband on the phone at those unfortunate moments when mortar and shrapnel are exploding around him (which is understandably often). When he’s home on leave, he’s painfully distant, reluctant to talk about his experiences and barely able to function, which is Taya’s cue to spout some gratingly obvious dialogue of the “Even when you’re here, you’re not here” variety. What works in these scenes, however, is the disquieting sense that Kyle’s normal life has shifted into the war zone, and that his time with his family is passing him by in fast, jarring blips; we see his kids at only brief intervals here, and the rate at which they grow up must be as startling for him as it is for us.
In its revelation of character through action, its concern with procedure rather than politics, and its focus on an exceptionally gifted U.S. soldier struggling to make sense of his small yet essential place in a war he only partly understands, Eastwood’s picture can’t help but recall “The Hurt Locker,” and if it’s ultimately a more earnest and prosaic, less formally daring affair than Kathryn Bigelow’s film, it nevertheless emerges as one of the few dramatic treatments of the U.S.-Iraq conflict that can stand in its company. And just as “The Hurt Locker” found revelatory depths in Jeremy Renner, so “American Sniper” hinges on Cooper’s restrained yet deeply expressive lead performance, allowing many of the drama’s unspoken implications to be read plainly in the actor’s increasingly war-ravaged face.
Cooper, who packed on 40 pounds for the role, is superb here; full of spirit and down-home charm early on, he seems to slip thereafter into a sort of private agony that only those who have truly served their country can know. (A late sequence shot in an impenetrable sandstorm provides the most literal possible metaphor for his own personal fog of war.) Perhaps the film’s most humanizing touch is its willingness to show Kyle not just reacting but thinking, attempting to grasp ideas that have thus far eluded him, whether he’s spending time with veterans who have lost limbs and worse on the battlefield; coming to grips with the difference between him and his reluctant-Marine brother (Keir O’Donnell); or shrugging awkwardly when someone calls him a “hero,” as if the word were a particularly ill-fitting sweater.
While the circumstances of Kyle’s death add a note of tragic urgency to the film’s matter-of-fact examination of post-traumatic stress disorder, the moment itself is left offscreen, a decision that feels consistent with the scrupulous restraint that characterizes the production as a whole. The visual and editorial choices discreetly reinforce the clash between the hell of modern warfare (the color all but drained away from Stern’s images) and the purgatory of middle-class American life, accentuated by a sound mix that allows us to register the hard pop of every gunshot. While Eastwood’s musical compositions have sometimes been hit-or-miss, he’s never written a subtler score than the one here, providing faint, almost imperceptible accompaniment; in a film that encourages us to reflect as well as feel, it’s a choice that speaks volumes.
Film Review: 'American Sniper'
Reviewed at Warner Bros. Studios, Burbank, Calif., Nov. 11, 2014. (In AFI Fest — Secret Screening.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 132 MIN.
Production: A Warner Bros. release and presentation, in association with Village Roadshow Pictures, Ratpac-Dune Entertainment, of a Mad Chance, 22nd & Indiana, Malpaso production. Produced by Clint Eastwood, Robert Lorenz, Andrew Lazar, Bradley Cooper, Peter Morgan. Executive producers, Tim Moore, Jason Hall, Sheroum Kim, Steven Mnuchin, Bruce Berman.
Crew: Directed by Clint Eastwood. Screenplay, Jason Hall, based on the book "American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History" by Chris Kyle with Scott McEwen, Jim DeFelice. Camera (color, Panavision widescreen, Arri Alexa digital), Tom Stern; editors, Joel Cox, Gary D. Roach; production designers, James J. Murakami, Charisse Cardenas; art directors, Dean Wolcott, Harry Otto; set decorator, Gary Fettis; costume designer, Deborah Hopper; sound (Dolby Digital/Datasat), Walt Martin; sound designer, Tom Ozanich; supervising sound editors, Alan Robert Murray, Bub Asman; re-recording mixers, John Reitz, Gregg Rudloff; special effects supervisor, Steven Riley; special effects coordinator, Brendon O'Dell; stunt coordinators, Jeff Habberstad, Trevor Habberstad; visual effects supervisor, Michael Owens; visual effects, MPC, Pacific Title & Art Studio, Sony Pictures Imageworks, Image Engine, Lola; assistant director, David M. Bernstein; second unit director, Robert Lorenz; second unit camera, Barry Idoine; casting, Geoffrey Miclat.
With: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Luke Grimes, Jake McDorman, Cory Hardrict, Kevin Lacz, Navid Negahban, Keir O'Donnell, Cole Konis, Luke Sunshine, Mido Hamada, Sammy Sheik. (English, Arabic dialogue)
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