Early on in American Sniper comes a scene in which U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) has a woman and her young son in his crosshairs as they walk toward a squad of American soldiers in Iraq, the mother handing the son what may be a grenade. Kyle has only a few seconds to decide whether they are innocent civilians or a threat. Should he take the shot? Would you take the shot? If you’re right, you end up saving the lives of several of your military brothers. But if you’re wrong, you’ll have to live with the guilt of being responsible for two unnecessary casualties of war.
That’s the sort of impossible situation Kyle is placed in several times during American Sniper, director Clint Eastwood’s tight, focused adaptation of Kyle’s autobiography. Working from a script by Jason Hall, Eastwood allows the entire movie to unfold through Kyle’s eyes, from his harrowing experiences on the battlefield, where he racked up 160 kills over four tours of duty, making him one of the deadliest snipers in military history, to his time at home with his wife (Sienna Miller) and children, where he has trouble readjusting to the tranquility of civilian life.
A spiritual and thematic cousin to The Hurt Locker, American Sniper explores the price paid by the ordinary men and women who fight for our country, using Kyle’s extraordinary story to represent the inner struggle and doubt many soldiers wrestle with while carrying out orders. Expertly shot and choreographed in Eastwood’s clean, unfussy style, the Iraq sequences are taut, harrowing and at times excruciatingly suspenseful, particularly a setpiece in which Kyle faces off against his Iraqi counterpart, a superb sniper who has made it his mission to take down the American sharpshooter.
Eastwood, who remains a prolific, ambitious filmmaker at the age of 84, explores the deep psychological impact violence has on people who are constantly exposed to it, a recurring theme in his body of work, particularly in his westerns (Unforgiven) and war pictures (Letters from Iwo Jima). The movie neither celebrates nor condones: Instead, it bears impartial witness to the nature of war and its consequences without any bursts of rah-rah patriotism.
Cooper, who gained 30 pounds of muscle for the role and has toned down some of the pricklier aspects of Kyle’s reputedly combative, boorish personality, follows Eastwood’s lead of not dwelling on the politics and morality of the Iraq War, focusing on the people who fought in it instead of their superiors (like Selma, the film is a work of fiction and never purports to be a documentary). American Sniper doesn’t shy away from depicting the horrors and atrocities of war, but the movie rarely strays too far from its protagonist, depicting his uncanny courage and accomplishments but also reminding us of the toll they exacted on the man.
“Evil” is how Kyle refers to his enemies — in a flashback, we are shown how he and his brother enlisted out of a sense of patriotic duty — but every time he is granted leave to spend time with his family, we see his gradual transformation and sense of unease. With time, Kyle becomes more comfortable dodging bullets in Iraq than in the arms of his wife. American Sniper closes with a title card that raises many questions for those unfamiliar with Kyle’s story, but that’s a conscious decision by Eastwood, who wants to pay homage to the real man while using him as a metaphor for the experience of millions before him. The melancholy streak coursing throughout the picture speaks to the grand tragedy of war and those who wage it on the ground, guns in hand and hearts in throat, unaware at the moment of how radically different the rest of their lives will be.
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Luke Grimes, Jake McDorman, Cory Hardrict, Kevin Lacz, Navid Negahban.
Director: Clint Eastwood.
Screenwriter: Jason Hall. Based on the book ‘American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. History.’
A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 132 minutes. Vulgar language, war violence, gore, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.