Clint Eastwood knows what it’s like to tell the same war story from two opposing sides. In 2006, Eastwood released two of the better World War II films in recent memory: Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima. The first film told the story of the legendary battle from the perspective of the men who raised the flag on Iwo Jima; the latter told the same tale from the perspective of the Japanese soldiers.
No doubt someone could tell the story of American Sniper from the other side of the rifle scope. Even before the release of this film, I was hearing from detractors complaining about what the movie WASN’T, even as they freely admitted they hadn’t even seen the movie.
Smack dab in the middle of one of those movie star runs when an actor can seem to do no wrong, Bradley Cooper put on 40 pounds, grew a full beard and disappeared into a Texas accent to portray Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL who had some 160 confirmed kills in four tours of duty. (In Kyle’s book he told more than a few stories about his life after his four tours of duty that allegedly played fast and loose with other’s accounts. In one case, it wasn’t just alleged. Jesse Ventura brought a law suit against Kyle for defamation, and won his case. But American Sniper isn’t about those controversies. It’s a dramatic interpretation of Kyle’s tours of duty and his struggles to become a good husband and father after all he’d experienced.)
Although Cooper succeeds in resembling and sounding like the real Chris Kyle, this isn’t some cheap impersonation trick. Cooper gives maybe the best performance of his career. In lesser hands, the character of Chris Kyle could have come across as a cliché – some ‘America-loving lout who celebrates every kill with beer showers and high-fives – but Cooper infuses Chris with humanity and dignity and vulnerability.
True, Chris never wavers in his belief he’s saving American lives every time he takes out an enemy soldier – or a civilian who is likely wielding a grenade or a bomb.
But this man doesn’t suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. We see signs the disorder is kicking in while he’s still in uniform.
There’s not a whole lot of Zero Dark Thirty strategy room stuff in this film. This isn’t a Big Picture look at things; it’s a close-up view of some fiery corners of an insane battle. Even when Eastwood is focusing on Kyle’s pursuit of two main targets – a former Olympic sharpshooter turned Iraqi insurgent sniper, and the heinous “Butcher of Fallujah” – what it comes down to is brutally simple: If the bad guys aren’t taken out, more American soldiers will die. And Chris Kyle is obsessed with not letting that happen.
We get some effective and straightforward scenes about Chris’s background, which include the very young Chris getting some tough-love lessons from his dad, and the 20 something Chris busting broncos and partying it up – and then Chris signs up with the Navy SEALs, about 10 years past the age of most hopefuls.
Sienna Miller play Chris’s wife, Taya. They meet Top Gun style in a bar, and every once in a while Taya comes across as the cliché military wife who tells her husband he’s not home even when he’s home, but Miller fights hard to make her character more than that, and she succeeds. A scene in which Taya is home in Texas pregnant, and Chris is on the phone from the middle of a battle, is heart-wrenching.
When Chris is back, we see familiar but moving sequences illustrating Kyle’s difficulties in adjusting to something resembling a tranquil domestic life. Like so many soldiers who came back after experiencing things most civilians can’t fathom, Chris finds it nearly impossible to tend to day-to-day life and responsibilities. Most of the people he encounters are at best vaguely aware of some kind of conflict somewhere over there that merits a fraction of the time the local news accords to the weather report.
The only thing worse than encountering ignorant bliss is hero worship. When a young veteran recognizes Chris in the most innocuous circumstances back in Texas, and keeps insisting Chris is a hero, we can feel Chris’s pain. This is the last thing he wants.
American Sniper is perhaps most effective in its closing sequences, when Chris begins to find himself by reaching out to fellow veterans. For those who don’t know what happened to the real-life Chris Kyle, I’ll leave it to you to discover via the film. Suffice to say Eastwood handles that chapter with just the right touch that extends into the closing credits.
Written by Richard Roeper / The Ranger