Clint Eastwood’s latest portrait of a man of violence unfolds with an immediacy that the octogenarian multi-hyphenate rarely musters anymore. In place of the solemn air that suffused every minute of the recent reflective likes of Gran Torino and J. Edgar, we’re immediately immersed in the perilous milieu that is an urban war zone.
On a rooftop in Fallujah, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper)—a newly initiated Navy SEAL sniper—peers through his rifle’s sites at the rubble-littered, Marine-patrolled street below. When a potential threat presents itself in the form of two unlikely assailants, it likewise seems to represent one of those “impossible decisions” that typically gives a protagonist pause and instigates some no-holds-barred wrestling with doubts. However, Kyle barely hesitates, taking dead aim and firing two fatal shots that dispatch the danger with remarkable efficiency. And while these particular scalps may not be what he envisioned claiming when he signed on, they do set the standard for the years of decorated service that see the taciturn Texan amass another 158 confirmed kills over four tours of duty.
It’s an impressive body count that would earn the real-life Kyle the title of “most lethal sniper in U.S. military history” (or so reads the subtitle of the autobiography that inspired Jason Hall’s screenplay). Lacking The Hurt Locker’s journalistic impulses, American Sniper assumes the form of a firefight-punctuated character study that once again allows Eastwood to investigate the toll killing takes on a man. Consequently, the film dispenses with the distraction of A-listers serving as glorified extras and never lets Cooper out of its crosshairs. Apparently convinced that manic energy only gets one so far (i.e. onto the Oscar ballot but short of the podium), he plays Kyle as largely humorless crusader whose only flashes of charisma arise in an early scene in which he woos his eventual wife (Sienna Miller, subsequently charged with the thankless task of weeping and fretting, often over the phone).
While a Man of God, Kyle worships most faithfully a gospel that was actually handed down by his father. This belief system distinguishes three types of people: vulnerable sheep, predatory wolves and protective sheepdogs. (Any guesses into which camp our hero jumps?) Such oversimplification crops up again when Kyle is soon christened “Legend” in recognition of the bloody campaign he wages against the “savages.” The major Middle Eastern “characters” here certainly comply with this descriptor, be it an Iraqi enforcer (Mido Hamada) who uses power tools on children or a Syrian sniper (Sammy Sheik) who’s able to match Kyle’s deadly marksmanship.
Such regressive depictions become slightly more forgivable if we assume that this is a subjective view of the world as seen through Kyle’s red-white-and-blue-colored glasses. Of course, confirming this would require that the straight-shooting patriot offer us more compelling insights into his damaged inner world. While Cooper proves capable of demonstrating the physical symptoms of PTSD, growing skittish and withdrawn, his much-ballyhooed blue eyes fail to convey much in the way of torment. Instead, they exude the determination of an actor eager to acquit himself well in an “important film”—deprives Kyle of the fragility demanded in his story’s closing chapters.
And so, while the skilfully edited combat sequences—including one melee staged amidst an epic sandstorm—are capable of rattling even hardened viewers, the postscript intended to lay bare the ramifications of such brutality rings rather hollow. Whereas Unforgiven hauntingly opined, “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man,” American Sniper offers the folksier assessment: “It’s a heck of a thing to stop a beating heart.” That sentiment is hardly the only thing here that feels recycled and fashioned into an inferior substitute.
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writer: Jason Hall
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Mido Hamada, Sammy Sheik
Release Date: Dec. 25, 2014