With Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Kyle Gallner, Keir O’Donnell, Mido Hamada. Written by Jason Hall. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Rated R for strong and disturbing war violence, and language throughout including some sexual references. 132 minutes.
One shudders to think what Steven Spielberg–originally attached to AMERICAN SNIPER–would have done with the project. He probably would have cast Tom Hanks in the role and made him a cuddly hero who just happened to amass the record as the deadliest marksman in American military history. The film’s ultimate director, Clint Eastwood, may be more sentimental than he lets on, but he doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve, and the result is a nearly-perfect film.
This is the story of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), who enlists because he feels a sense of obligation to both himself and his country. Even as he’s marrying Taya (Sienna Miller) he’s ready to head into combat. He’s sent to Iraq and because of his special set of skills, serves as a sniper. His job is to protect the troops on the ground while taking out the threats against them. Often he has only moments to decide: is that woman on her way to the market or is she carrying explosives under her clothes?
Based on Kyle’s memoir of the same name, Eastwood’s film operates on two tracks. First, what is it that causes a man to step up to a task like this? How does he operate? He’s earnest and serious and wants to make sure he’s removing actual threats to his fellow soldiers, not simply killing people at random. When he oversteps his bounds, it’s while going after really bad people, such as an Al-Qaeda operative nicknamed “The Butcher” (Mido Hamada), known to torture his victims with power tools.
Yet this is no flag-waving celebration of the Iraq War. The focus is not on why we were there or what our objectives were. This takes Kyle’s heroism as a given but beyond that the political message is more about bringing our troops home safely than anything else. This brings us to the film’s second track which is to examine what this job–and Kyle served four terms of duty–does to a man.
It is here where Bradley Cooper impresses in a way he has not in his other movies. Coming home, Kyle has trouble making the transition. When the adrenaline is pumping and your reactions are on a hair trigger, it’s hard to shift over to being a suburban husband and father. Cooper and Eastwood avoid most of the clichés as they show Kyle and Taya trying to find a way to create a normal life for themselves. The story ends tragically, but the film becomes a tribute to Kyle for showing the same fortitude in his personal life as he had in combat.
The war scenes are exciting and suspenseful, with Eastwood as director balancing the need to entertain with the equal need not to turn real life battles into Hollywood exploits. It’s hard to believe that Eastwood, at 84, is not only still making movies, but made two last year (this and “Jersey Boys”) and is doing some of the best work of his career. “American Sniper” is a mature film of the toll war takes on its warriors, and you should see it, regardless of your politics.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.