Eastwood’s best film in years, and thoroughly deserving of all its recent Oscar accolades.
BY RYAN MILOWICKI
Far too often, movies like American Sniper get brushed aside as guns-a-blazing, violence-glorifying exercises in shooting. And while Clint Eastwood’s second film of 2014 certainly features moments which could inspire some good-natured patriotic revelry, the story of Chris Kyle, the United States’ deadliest sniper of all time, is anything but a happy one. Bursting with kinetic energy, heart-stopping sequences of suspense, and aching amounts of melancholy character development, American Sniper is Eastwood’s best film in years, and thoroughly deserving of all its recent Oscar accolades.
Spanning from Chris Kyle’s initial drive to join the military to his tragic death in 2013, the film shows Kyle turn into the most brutally effective soldier in memory, often at the expense of his relationship with his wife Taya. Divorced from the usual overt political overtones that permeate most war films like this, American Sniper focuses solely on the perspective of Kyle, showing him unflinchingly as one isolated man (or a pawn in the game, if you really want to get political) who had a major impact on the events of the war in Iraq, whether or not his motivations ever aligned with anyone else’s.
Right from the first of his over 150 documented kills, we see that Chris Kyle is not the type of man to celebrate his “achievements.” After his first shots (in a grippingly taut sequence which functioned as the first theatrical trailer), his nearby colleague whoops loudly and praises Kyle’s ability. Rather than commiserate in this joy, Kyle forcefully tells his fellow soldier to be quiet, setting the tone for the rest of the film. In Chris Kyle, we have a character who balances precariously between a devastating lethal weapon and a man wary to use his skills unless absolutely necessary. Whereas Jeremy Renner’s character in The Hurt Locker was addicted to the idea of war, Chris Kyle is a man whose mental imperative to serve his country is the only thing which makes him able to kill. This moral dilemma constantly brewing in his head ultimately allows him to not be destroyed inside by all the lives he ends up taking. In one scene, he tells a psychologist, “I’m willing to face my creator and answer for every shot that I’ve taken.”
Anchoring the film is a revelatory performance from Bradley Cooper, who personifies Kyle in one of the year’s finest turns. Packing on 40 pounds of muscle, Cooper is almost unrecognizable when his new physique is paired with a convincing Texas drawl. American Sniper plays the duality of cacophonous gunplay and eerie silence perfectly, so much of the film rests on the ability of Cooper to silently emote in these tense buildup moments. And as the camera focuses entirely on Cooper’s face in these important sequences, we get to see a soul-baring performance of heartbreaking proportions. Without a doubt, this is the finest role of Bradley Cooper’s career, and his third consecutive Best Actor nomination is well-deserved.
Playing Kyle’s wife Taya, Sienna Miller gives a moving performance as well, although given much less screentime than Cooper. She plays a major part in several of the film’s most crucial moments however, which stem around phone calls between the two. As a sniper usually several stories above the most gruesome action, Kyle has the luxury of being able to call his wife throughout the movie while technically on the battlefield. But in a few instances, the battle manages to find him anyway, often cutting short their conversations abruptly. In the chaos that usually ensues, the scene cuts back and forth between Taya’s stunned and frantic listening to the gunfire in her ear and Chris Kyle’s immediate transformation into an instinctually superior soldier, completely forgetting about his wife on the other line.
This dual personality which plagues Kyle throughout the movie lends it much of its conflict. As he served four tours of duty in Iraq, the film spends plenty of time focusing on the times in which he comes home between tours. As his family grows, his relationship with them seems to ebb, much to his wife’s chagrin. Much more than the standard filmic depiction of PTSD, the situations Kyle faces at home (such as meeting an amputee who invites him to visit other fellow veterans) are equal parts heartbreaking and maddening, because we can see how much the war has affected him.
On the technical side of things, American Sniper is a visual masterpiece. Usually movies like this turn the cliché sniper-sight crosshair view into an overused gimmick. While the crosshairs certainly show up throughout the movie, they never seem to diminish the sensory experience surrounding the events. Since Chris Kyle spends much of the film looking down from rooftops, the cinematography matches his unique perspective, giving us sweeping views of the haunting beauty of the devastated Iraqi landscape. The sound design of this film is also top-notch, and it’s no exaggeration to say that I could hear the bullets flying from every direction.
American Sniper is also an incredibly visceral film, unafraid to show the grotesque realities of modern warfare. We see many of Kyle’s colleague shot down around him, and often are forced to watch his hurried attempts to bind their wounds and coax them through their final moments. In a more pedestrian war movie, escalating death tolls can leave an audience desensitized to the loss of life, but these scenes never lose their emotional context, giving Chris Kyle the drive to fulfill his duty.
Eastwood’s depiction on the Iraq war is one focused on the power of individuals, and offers some truly interesting narrative choices. As Kyle’s fame grows, a bounty is placed on his head, and the remainder of the Iraq scenes play out as one of the most twisted rivalry stories in Hollywood history, as he squares off continuously against an equally-effective Syrian sniper. Not to be relegated to a one-note villain, this rival sniper is given enough screentime to show his humanity as well, as we learn that he competed in the Olympics and has a loving wife at home as well. There is true evil displayed in American Sniper as well, but Eastwood’s film isn’t interested in wantonly dividing it cleanly into Iraq vs. USA. Rather, we see how good and evil play out on both sides of the battlefield, resulting in a moving tale of war that turns the story of one of the most interesting individuals in military history into a telling morality play about impossible choices which can’t be analyzed until long after they are executed. This is one of the year’s finest pictures, and its inclusion as a Best Picture nominee is a testimony to its ability to transcend so many other war films which preceded it.
RYAN’s RATING: 4 Stars out of 4