Clint Eastwood returns to the status of heavy-hitting director with his latest effort, American Sniper (in theaters Jan. 16). It’s good to see Eastwood back on form, though with a few glaringly poor choices that remove viewers from the story, it’s a great boon to his film to have Bradley Cooper on his side.
American Sniper is not a war movie; rather, it is the story of Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in American history, and his struggles in war zones and without. We see his formative years at the foot of a father who is a Texas man’s man in every sense of the word, a youth spent chasing other dreams, and ultimately a moment of realization that leads him doggedly into the life of a Navy SEAL.
Cooper is at the height of his powers, all determination, a restless, almost manic look in his eye when he’s not helping keep his brothers in arms alive, and one of absolute tranquil sense of purpose as he pulls the trigger over and over again.
The film is at once intense and monotonous as we experience Chris Kyle’s life in the field, day after day of relentless danger, close scrapes, and bringing death down from on high. It’s a situation that’s quite unimaginable to most of us, but Cooper instills Chris with the calm collectedness and absolute assurance that makes it easy to understand why guys felt untouchable with him watching their back. If Chris Kyle ever let any of that reputation change him, we don’t see it.
We do see, however, the toll multiple tours took on his ability to come back to a quiet civilian life, in the short term or the long. It’s in these sequences that Cooper does his best work, inciting a tension so palpable that you can almost feel the audience around you cringing, waiting for the worst.
This is why American Sniper is a must see. It’s a complete portrait of the sacrifices one man and his family made so that he might serve his country, and a glimpse into some of the horrors those in the armed forces face daily.
For all that, American Sniper does have its imperfections. The clumsy use of what is painfully obviously a doll in a scene that would have otherwise been filled to the brim with the tension and desperation coming off Cooper and Sienna Miller (who is a perfect counter point to Cooper as Taya Kyle) instead falls flat and distracting as that one glaring issue details the scene. Also distracting is the wholly unnecessary use of bullet time during a climactic battle — this isn’t The Matrix, this is supposed to be a representation of real events, and that bit of high-octane gimmickry makes light of the very real life and death struggle we are supposed to be watching unfold. Here too is some rather forced symbolism, that’s less poetic and more distracting.
Despite these questionable choices, the weight of the story and the fine performances, particularly Cooper’s, carry the day and save the film from falling into folly.