*Warning **SPOILERS** ahead*
American film legend Clint Eastwood holds the director's chair with focused purpose in his telling of decorated United States Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle's career; an enlisted instrument of dedicated and precise death in trying foreign circumstances during America's conflicts in post 9/11 Iraq. Bradley Cooper's reputation is solidified at a personal all-time high, sinking into a character that not only is the most decorated sniper for the United States military but a noble man who much of the general public is already familiar with. Roles like that are not easy and Cooper transforms his body and mannerisms for an Oscar-quality performance. A film like this, although with a fairly sweeping scope of those impacted by the events, hinges on the believability of its main subject and it's obvious Cooper approached the role with intensity and the proper respect due.
Eastwood and his crew, most notably writer Jason Hall and director of photography Tom Stern do a marvelous job making a film that both instills patriotic pride but does not completely paint our nation's involvement in Iraq as monolithically heroic. As with any great survival war film, the paradoxes and corrupted ideals of foreign occupation are readily apparent. Even without contrived artistic licensing as Clint finds a great balance in informing his audience but also not patronizing them with over-the-top political commentary. Although there are portions of the film that could be categorized as a bit of a love letter to our military, it is offset by more than enough stark realizations of detailed reality that cast a clear enough picture of the uncertainty that our men face dealing with Islamic extremists in the Middle East. In this film, we are exposed to Chris Kyle's four separate tours of duty.
Kyle is presented as a living embodiment of altruism and duty to his country. I will admit that I do not know detailed accounts of the actual Chris Kyle's story but in this film, he is basically the ideal poster boy of American protection. Everything about him, from his motives to his talent to his demeanor (laid back Texas cowboy with a sense of humor) forces the audience to care for his plight and the personalty of his domesticated family life. This is accomplished with well-paced callbacks to the discipline instilled by his tough and caring father.
Right away we are shown that his sense and purpose derives from his father's messages of protecting kin and country. In Training Day, society is boxed into descriptors delegating individuals as 'wolves' or 'sheep.' This observation is expanded upon effectively when Kyle's father uses the same comparison but is further nuanced by teaching young Kyle that it is best to be a 'sheep dog,' a protector of those who are incapable of maintaining their own safety from the predatory men that corrupt and spoil mankind's peace. This metaphor lays the groundwork for the sniper's intrinsic calling to enlist and dedicate his life to the lethal art of long range rifle work, despite being thirty years old. The film transitions well into delving us into unabashed military lifestyle with crudely humorous yet accurate basic training banter.
In a generation that obsessively plays Call Of Duty on XBox and Playstation, a film like American Sniper serves as the middleman buffer of reality between video game and real life-staking combat. This idea is even alluded to in the film when Cooper's Kyle is setting his sights from atop an Iraqi structure and his young spotter shows this same Xbox desensitization, cheering at the precision of Kyle's kill shots of Iraqi women and children. It was a powerful and telling moment, both about military approach and the modernness of video game culture but with real life impact. This same soldier is even shown playing handheld games while on campaign to reinforce this connection. Eastwood captures a wide spectrum of types of soldiers, prepared to kill and protect what they believe is American safety. The enlisted men all felt organic and with a backstory rooted in similar forests.
Bradley Cooper focuses his sights on his strongest performance
A couple aspects of the film that weren't particularly strong was showing the marriage of Kyle and his wife, Taya. For one, the pacing and development of their relationship was fairly brief. Sure, it's a movie about mainly a sniper and his job but it felt a bit rushed to jump from the two lovers meeting, then becoming intimate, then marriage and the next times we see Taya, she has a new child. Sure, much of this was to display how much time Chris Kyle spent in Iraq and all he was missing but I just didn't get as invested in them as a couple as I could have. Sienna Miller's work as wife of a domestic legend was fair, passable but it felt more Hollywood than the organic, inhabited quality of Cooper's work. Just from a two and a half hour film, we get the sense this a guy we know; this is a good-ole-boy that we have drank with in various small town bars or shot bows and guns with.
A new legacy has been meticulously carved out over the past couple decades by All-American Clint Eastwood, removed from just the acting that already made him a revered figure. American Sniper may be his strongest overall film, with proper respects to Mystic River. Everybody involved in this production took extreme care to pay homage and nobly honor the life of Chris Kyle, a man slain by a mentally unstable veteran he was selflessly spending time with. The emotional punches resonate all over this film, the death and mangled state that becomes of our enlisted men's bodies and souls. Hearing 'Taps' play at a serviceman's funeral never loses its impact, whether in real time or film. The ending is a haunting resolution to a man who wanted nothing more than to protect and serve his family and country. Kudos to Eastwood for a beautiful ending credits sequence of actual footage only to lead into the standardized black screen credits with no accompanying music. That was a classy decision by Clint and his team, something you wouldn't expect anything less from in a film featuring this subject matter. Eastwood is "the legend" in U.S. films in a similar way that Chris Kyle is to the U.S. military.
Every American- whether native or naturalized, whether a staunch Republican or Democrat, a committed Christian or a practicing Muslim- should see this film. It's truly a masterful work presenting many angles of beauty and destruction, both within and abroad.