Strange as it might seem given the considerable distance in years and changing nature of warfare, Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” feels very much like the final film of his war trilogy begun with the World War II films, “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima.”
Together these films express much about the horrific mix of bravado, valor, sadness and tragedy that is war. While a political conservative, Eastwood has never embraced orthodoxy and often goes beyond the gung-ho responses of many to dramatically articulate in his films the melancholy and psychological torment of the warrior both in country and upon returning home.
“American Sniper” is based on a book by Chris Kyle, “the most lethal sniper in U.S. history,” as its jacket proclaims. It’s a disquieting, dispassionate account of killing and killing “until there’s no one left for you to kill.” From this source material, Eastwood has made a disturbing and thoughtful, as well as taut and suspenseful, account of a long-distance assassin.
Eastwood and his writer, Jason Hall, have added enormous emotional heft and vivid action to a story. So the way looks clear for Eastwood to enjoy one of his most successful box-office outings in recent years. It’s certainly his best film since “Iwo Jima.”
The film’s star, Bradley Cooper, is meanwhile riding his own rocketing career trajectory with “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle” in back to back years. Even so, in “American Sniper” he shows off an even greater gift for deep-dish acting than previously displayed.
His physical transformation into a beefy Texan and master sniper is so astonishing you keep staring at the screen to find remnants of good old Bradley Cooper. Where’d he go?
This is a different guy. He looks different, acts different and has this quiet cool that sees him through the most rigorous Navy SEAL training and dicey rules of engagement in occupied Iraq.
The movie divides itself into the early life of the warrior, his upbringing and life ethos instilled by a religious father; his training and the wooing of his wife, picked up in a San Diego bar; four tours of duty in Iraq where he turns from the hunter to the hunted; increasingly brief returns home for the birth of his children and increasing detachment from his family; and the final days of his life.
One might quarrel that more time is devoted to his exploits in country and not enough on the home front. But Eastwood probably saw no reason to spell things out for his audience. He trusts they will pick up on subtext and understand the emotions Kyle and his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), are going through.
The action sequences are the best in Eastwood’s career. These are vivid, heart-in-your-throat combat scenes on city streets where you can’t tell enemy combatant and civilian apart and, memorably, in a sandstorm in the hell of Sadr City where it looks like few if any SEALS will get out alive.
The “evil” that Kyle says is in Iraq hides itself well. It emerges in startling flashes — in “the Butcher,” a thoroughly psychotic character out of a horror film, bringing terror to Iraqi citizens and also in an insurgent sniper as deadly accurate as Kyle himself.
This sniper is bent on laying a trap for the American sniper everyone now calls the “Legend.” He is killing far too many insurgents.
(Kyle was credited with 160 confirmed kills although the number may well be much higher.)
The only annoying thing the movie does in several war scenes is having Chris on a cell phone to his wife while in the midst of a stakeout or, even worse, actual combat. Whether he ever did this or not, this whimsical approach to moments of high stress flies in the face of the patient care Chris is seen taking when he scans down dusty roads of Iraqi towns through the scope of his rifle.
The movie opens, as does the book, with his first kill, when he must decide if a woman and child may be carrying a grenade to take out an advancing unit of American Marines, then cuts abruptly to his dad teaching him the art of hunting in north-central Texas and the ethos of “God, country, family.”
Brutal Navy SEAL training leads to his boozy first encounter with his future wife and their truncated courtship due to his swift deployment to Iraq following 9/11.
Each deployment not only ups the ante but increases his obsession with the job. Eventually, as targets apparently dry up, he comes down off of roof tops to join the the street-level searches for enemy operatives.
Homecomings become more and more terse and disappointing. “If you think this war isn’t changing you, you’re wrong,” asserts his wife. He is barely listening to her by now.
In that Sadr City dust storm where he confronts his nemesis but nearly loses his entire team as a helicopter swoops in to rescue them from certain death, he decides he’s seen his last combat.
The final homecoming and move from San Diego back to Texas is emotional, and you sense Chris is regaining a sense of his old self and purpose as a father to his children. That his life was cut short by a troubled veteran suffering from PTSD, who killed him on a shooting range in February 2013, adds a downbeat wrap to a story that already involves so much spilling of blood.
With Miller evoking such a strong female character early in the film you wish there were meatier scenes between her and Cooper in the later sections. The film lacks insights into his struggles upon his return home. Since he apparently did succeed in reclaiming his life, the movie might have given you a greater sense of how this came about as well.
Then again, the film is about a journey interrupted, a life cut short, as most war stories are. Like “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima,” “American Sniper” pays tribute to warriors, fallen or victorious, and measures the sacrifices they all make.
Opens: December 25, 2014 (Warner Bros.)
Production companies: Mad Chance, 22nd & Indiana, Malpaso
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Luke Grimes, Jake McDorman, Cory Hardrict, Kevin Lacz, Navid Negahban, Keir O’Donnell
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenwriter: Jason Hall
Based on the book by: Chris Kyle with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice
Producers: Clint Eastwood, Robert Lorenz, Andrew Lazar, Bradley Cooper, Peter Morgan
Executive producers: Tim Moore, Jason Hall, Sheroum Kim, Steven Mnuchin, Bruce Berman
Director of photography: Tom Stern
Production designer: James J. Murakami, Charisse Cardenas
Costume designer: Deborah Hopper
Editors: Joel Cox, Gary D. Roach
R rating, 134 minutes