Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller
The first shot in American Sniper has expert gunman Chris Kyle deciding whether or not to kill two people. The targets appear to be an Iraqi woman and her young son. They may actually be threats, hiding bombs, ready to attack an advancing US convey of soldiers and tanks.
American Sniper is a troubling film, one that morally fits with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. In Eastwood’s world, evil is a constant, palpable force that must be fought with brutal force. Yet, that violence takes its toll. Whether the US government is the evil one or not is never argued.
Cooper portrays Kyle, a loyal soldier and the most lethal sniper in American military history. His legend makes him a hero to American soldiers and a target to insurgents in our protracted war in Iraq. He takes out 160 people in 4 tours of Iraq. At home, his wife (Miller) is pregnant and raising their kids alone, anxiously listening in as cellphone calls are interrupted by battle.
Eastwood is excellent behind the camera, erasing all the missteps he took last summer with the dud Jersey Boys. American Sniper is more in the 84-year-old cowboy’s wheelhouse – that much is obvious.
I have argued this before; to tell a story like Kyle’s and yet not present a rounded view about the politics or the prices of war is irresponsible. In films like Last Man Standing, this choice supports a “boo-rah” patriotism that can be seen as, at best, brainwashing propaganda. Eastwood avoids this grandstanding in Sniper’s first scene – with the mother and boy in Kyle’s scope. Though George W, Cheney, Halliburton, and America’s foreign policy don’t even merit one mention, there is enough attention to the cost of Kyle’s work on his psyche. Eastwood’s aperture here is tighter – this narrowing of focus may turn off some audiences.
Perhaps, Eastwood is trying to show us both the necessity (which, given his Republicanism and past statements and films, I assume he believes in 100 percent), as well as the personal price that such a belief exacts.
American Sniper also has other tiny problems. Flashbacks – though illuminating of Kyle’s psyche – make the film lose drive and tension. The rhythm of the film is repetitive. Changes to Kyle’s biography can be seen as Hollywood manipulation. The brutality of the Iraqi enemies seems a little too easy to hate.
At the center of this flick, though, is Bradley Cooper, eliminating all his wily charm to play lock-lipped Kyle. His Texas accent is as tight as his aim. Cooper’s performance has earned him a much-deserved Oscar nomination in a year full of great performances. (This is his third nomination in three years.)
If Kyle ever struggled with the larger politics, Eastwood and Cooper don’t show that. Kyle’s quandaries are more palpable – whether he should kill a mother and her child to save his soldier buddies. War makes him more withdrawn, driving up his blood pressure, shaking his nerve. The last few moments of the film give us a clearer indication that such violence always exacts a steep price.
Eastwood makes for an engaging, if troubling, film. Cooper’s performance is a bull’s eye.