For someone so well-known for westerns, war films, and being Dirty Harry on-screen, Clint Eastwood is a surprisingly versatile director, even tackling the musical genre earlier in 2014 with a Broadway adaptation, Jersey Boys. Eastwood made his directorial debut in 1971, 44 years ago. In that time he has helmed 34 feature films, which is not quite the pace of someone like Woody Allen, but also slightly more robust than Steven Spielberg during roughly the same time frame (I wonder how many people knew Clint Eastwood was that prolific as a director?). With American Sniper, Eastwood continues his recent trend of tackling mostly biopics and returns to the front lines of war for the first time since his twin offerings in 2006 of Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima.
American Sniper tells the story of US Navy Seal Chris Kyle, portrayed by Bradley Cooper. The film briefly shades in his character through glimpses of his youth and early adulthood before joining the military. Chris’ father lays out for he and his brother at the dinner table that there are three types of people in the world: sheep (who need protecting), wolves (who seek to prey upon the sheep), and sheepdogs (those who protect the sheep from the wolves). The film explicitly lays out that Chris is a sheepdog. This sense of obligation to protect those around him fuels Chris in every decision he makes and action he takes throughout the film. It compels him to join the military after witnessing the embassy bombing the 90s. After his marriage to wife Taya (played by Sienna Miller) shortly after 9/11, it drives him to four tours in Iraq to protect his fellow soldiers.
Cooper and Miller both give good performances. Cooper bulked up for the role in order to more physically resemble the real-life man. He plays the man as someone who always seems to have a sense of purpose and direction, which really kicks into gear when he joins the military. It’s not a flashy role or a severely muted role, but it is a subdued performance. There is a physically imposing sense to the character, but there are scant few physical outbursts, and most of his emotions are internalized. Part of that internalization leads to the troubles he has assimilating back into life at home in between tours and the distance that creates between he and his wife. Miller is given more emotional range to work with, as the wife in the unenviable position of fearing for her husband’s safety away from her and raising a family on her own. While at times it seems like she is just there to add emotional, dramatic heft to the film in some keys scenes involving phone calls to heighten the tension, they do share some very good scenes together when Chris is home discussing the fragility of their marriage and the importance of him needing to be there and be involved.
Speaking of tension, the film does a very good job of effectively ratcheting up the tension throughout the film, not just in action sequences, but in the tough, dehumanizing decisions that must be made in a war zone. It further play into the difficulties and PTSD that Chris experiences while at home. I found it interesting at one point that when he returns for one of his later tours, someone remarks, “Welcome home!” It’s a subtle comment, but seeing how out-of-place he is at home with his family, the battlefield really is home for this man.
The film doesn’t shy away from a lot of tough material. His first sniper kill, in particular is gut wrenching and is effectively invoked later in the film with a similar scenario. Throughout the film, there is also a subtle verbal progression that further emphasizes the impact these tours are having on Chris. While home after his first tour, Chris refers to the people they are fighting, like a character known as The Butcher, as “savages” because of what he has seen them do to their own people; by the time of his third and fourth tours, he’s openly referring to all the people over there, even civilians, as “savages.”
As seems to be the case with most films about snipers, there is a mysterious counterpart in the insurgency that is a continual foil and fly in the ointment that Chris and his crew search for while also searching for The Butcher. This sniper counterpart is a ghost on their periphery throughout the film, and serves as a slightly too convenient “unfinished business” plot device. The film loses some forward momentum toward the middle before recovering well with his fourth and last tour. The ending puts too neat a bow on things, it’s a very blatant goodbye scene that all but screams that tragedy is right around the corner.
While the film has gotten a lot of award buzz and positive box office reception, it’s a little hard to discern why. It may be that it is capturing the American audience’s attention at just the right time; it could be Bradley Cooper emerging as a legit leading man, it could be a sense of patriotism, or just the superb marketing. Likely, it’s a combination of these combined with a better than average war film. All in all, American Sniper is a good film and easily Eastwood’s best since Gran Torino.
Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars