Four stars. Rated R, for strong and disturbing war violence, and frequent profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.16.15
What price a man’s soul?
Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is the thoughtful study of Texas-born good ol’ boy Chris Kyle, who, sparked by a flash of patriotism, impulsively abandoned an amiably deadbeat lifestyle to train as a Navy SEAL. And not just any SEAL, as it turned out, but a deadly accurate sharpshooter eventually credited with 160 confirmed kills (out of 255 probables) during his service in the Iraqi war.
Eastwood — 84 years young, and still going strong — hasn’t helmed many straight biographies during his lengthy career; we can point to Bird and J. Edgar, along with White Hunter, Black Heart, the latter a thinly veiled account of director John Huston’s off-camera activities while making The African Queen.
Despite working with different scripters, each of these films focused on the emotional and spiritual toll exacted by a man’s career and lifestyle. It could be argued that Eastwood’s magnum opus, in this regard, is the wholly fictional Unforgiven, particularly when protagonist Bill Munny observes, “It’s a hell of a thing, killin’ a man. Take away all he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have.”
Scripter Jason Hall emphasizes this notion throughout American Sniper, drawing heavily from the 2012 autobiography that Kyle wrote, assisted by Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice. It’s a helluva story on numerous levels, starting with the fact that individuals really can make a massive difference, even within the military chain of command. Kyle couldn’t possibly know how many scores (hundreds?) of American soldiers he saved, during his career as — you have to love this eyebrow-lifting accolade — the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history.
And yet, on the surface, Bradley Cooper’s understated performance as Kyle eschews such celebrity; the man repeatedly insists that he abides by the simple ethos of God, country and family, and always in that order. On top of which, his responsibility as a childhood guardian to younger brother Jeff instilled the importance of looking after one’s own, and — later, on the battlefield — never leaving a man behind.
But Cooper’s work here is deceptive, as is the layering that Eastwood encourages from his star. At first blush, Kyle seems superficial and bland: determined solely to do a good job on behalf of his fellow soldiers, and seemingly unmoved by the consequences of his actions. But that’s a lie, of course, as becomes increasingly obvious during the course of a military career that runs from 1999 through 2009.
Eastwood opens his film on what we later learn is Kyle’s first life-or-death decision, during the initial Iraqi invasion, when from a rooftop vantage point he spots a woman and her young son emerging from a building. They walk slowly toward an approaching squadron of American Marines, and she’s clearly cradling something in her arms. A bomb ... a grenade ... or just some sort of religious token, to be offered in peace and friendship?
A young woman and a child. Not in the least what Kyle expected.
And then, with the suspense amplified to the screaming point, Eastwood cuts away before Kyle makes his decision, instead taking us back to the formative Texas childhood, hunting deer with his father. Then, in rapid succession, the brief career as a bronco rodeo rider, the military enlistment and meet-cute encounter with Taya (Sienna Miller), the woman who quickly becomes his wife.
It’s typical Hollywood shorthand, almost a montage, but it crisply and efficiently establishes everything we need to know about Kyle. Mostly, we’re struck by the cordial charm — almost formal, and deferential when appropriate — that allows ample use of Cooper’s laid-back, megawatt smile.
Pay attention to that smile, and how readily it brightens Kyle’s face: It’s the best indication of his state of mind, as the months and years pass.
In short order, we catch up to Kyle’s ghastly predicament from that rooftop: Take the shot ... or not? His decision, and its aftermath, changes things forever.
Eastwood and Hall divide their film into distinct chapters, logically established by Kyle’s four tours in Iraq. Despite the increasing damage to his personal life, back home — the growing estrangement from Taya and their two children — he simply can’t stay away.
Although professing not to be obsessed by his growing notoriety — the U.S. forces soon nickname him “Legend,” while the Iraqis dub him “the Devil of Ramadi” and put a bounty on his head — Kyle increasingly succumbs to implications of his own expertise.
“It’s not the people you saved, that you remember,” he explains, at one point. “It’s the ones you couldn’t save.” Cooper’s expression becomes stoic and stony, his eyes often clouded with angst: If he’s not in the field, how many of his friends might die?
Aside from the anxieties generated by Kyle’s protective coverage for each mission, additional tension is generated by Hall’s creation of an enemy doppelgänger: Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), a Syrian sharpshooter who once competed in the Olympics, and now picks off American soldiers with a ruthless efficiency that Kyle immediately recognizes. It’s a genius dramatic touch, since it gives Kyle a greater overall purpose beyond the routine sorties: the need to find and take out this counterpart.
Sheik plays this role soundlessly, never speaking a single word of dialogue. He’s just this side of being a ghost: a shadowy, scary composite character representing the numerous similarly skilled adversaries that the real-life Kyle encountered during his decade in Iraq.
It’s also an ideal Eastwood touch, tracing the increasingly gripping movements of two snipers determined to kill each other.
Despite our investment in Cooper’s portrayal of Kyle, however, the film eventually suffers from a dispassionate coldness: a detached, by-the-numbers tone perhaps intended to reflect our hero’s own methodical and meticulous nature. Eastwood’s film isn’t anywhere near as nervous-making as 2008’s The Hurt Locker, nor as breathlessly, nail-bitingly tense as 2001’s Black Hawk Down.
At 132 minutes, this film also is a bit too long; some of the early melees aren’t distinct enough to remain interesting, until we get to the third-act corker.
Miller, sadly, gets little opportunity to display Taya’s cheerful, sensual side; all too quickly, she becomes the voice of caution and growing concern during Kyle’s brief visits back home. Although lacking Cooper’s nuance, Miller nonetheless conveys the misery of a devoted wife who sees the man she loves turning into a stranger, and can’t fathom how to stop the transformation.
Nor do we get to know Kyle’s comrades terribly well. Kyle Gallner’s Goat-Winston is a feisty little guy who serves as our hero’s spotter; Jake McDorman’s Biggles seems the closest that Kyle has to a friend; and Luke Grimes’ Marc Lee succumbs to battlefield cynicism. But these are surface tics, not true characterization; we care about them in the abstract, simply because Eastwood and editors Joel Cox and Gary Roach make the street-level melees persuasively vicious ... not because we have any particular investment in this guy or that one.
On top of which, the supporting character with whom we should have a strong investment — Jeff, who joins the Marines to follow in his beloved older brother’s footsteps — is mysteriously abandoned by the third act. Keir O’Donnell plays Jeff as a simple-minded mope in his early scenes; later, after an unexpected encounter on an airfield tarmac, we never see Jeff again. That’s not merely odd; it’s unsatisfying.
We also get no mention of Chris Kyle’s numerous honors: the two Silver Stars, five Bronze Stars, the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medals and Achievement Medals. We could argue that this mirrors the public modesty that Kyle manifests throughout the film, but it seems too important a detail to overlook: an acknowledgment that he was very much recognized for his battlefield skill.
The irony of what happens to Kyle after he leaves military service is left for a closing-credit crawl: probably wise, since it’s a chilling epilogue which, if dwelt upon too much, would destroy the heroic portrait that Eastwood, Hall and Cooper have worked so hard to build.
It’s a noble screen biography, and definitely worth viewing ... but likely only once. I can’t see this film enjoying the repeat business that will help it resonate for decades to come.
Better, I suspect, to pick up a copy of Kyle’s book.