If at the end of “American Sniper” you feel less than moved by the title character’s exploits – if the whole enterprise leaves you with a strange, hard-to-define feeling – don’t think that’s an accident. Clint Eastwood has made a sneaky, complicated film that takes the form of a rousing war movie but whose ideas are almost subversive – or at least too provocative to state overtly.
For that reason, “American Sniper” is bound to be misunderstood even by those who admire it. And it will definitely be misunderstood by people who don’t like it, who might wonder why they didn’t walk out inspired by the story of a real American hero. Well, the clue is in the title. Not “American Hero” but “American Sniper.”
What Eastwood is saying with this film is that sometimes what we call heroism isn’t defined by the presence of something, such as courage or a sense of purpose. Sometimes it’s the result of an absence of something, such as the capacity for introspection or real empathy. At the same time, Eastwood is realist enough to know that, if you’re going to fight a war, you don’t want Hamlet standing next to you. In some contexts, limitation can be a strength.
The movie is based on the memoir of the same name by Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL and the most lethal sniper in American history, with 160 confirmed kills. He became known as the “Legend.” The movie tells his story, from his childhood in Odessa, Texas, through his decision to join the SEALs and through several tours of duty in Iraq.
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Bradley Cooper, who bulked up for the role, also changed his demeanor, from urban and mercurial to rural and steady. He plays Kyle as not smart but not stupid, either; as someone who sees his path to distinction as doing exactly what he’s told but doing it better than anybody else. Later, Cooper also suggests depths to Kyle that he doesn’t see himself, that beneath the surface of this simple, bottled-up guy, there is pain and rage that he can never face.
Eastwood throws audiences right into the battle scenes. As a sniper, Kyle sits safe above the action, but there is still a lot of stress involved. He must constantly make life and death decisions. He must decide whether a mother carrying a baby is about to throw a hand grenade. He must decide whether a child, walking up to a group of Marines, is just a harmless kid or a suicide bomber.
Still, although shooting at people is intense, getting shot at is worse, and the scene in which Kyle and a group of men are pinned down by sniper fire brings out the best in Eastwood. He keeps us in the heart of the action by showing us only what Kyle can see, while he reminds us that what’s happening to Kyle is the same thing he does to other people all the time. Of course, Kyle might dismiss his foes as “savages” whose lives don’t matter, but that doesn’t mean the director agrees. He almost certainly doesn’t.
Incidentally, if anybody thinks I’m reading this complexity into Eastwood’s intentions – if anybody thinks of Eastwood as an uncomplicated old fellow who has conversations with chairs and who sees moral issues in black and white – forget it. This is the same director who took a nuanced view of Iwo Jima and who made two films about that battle just to do justice to both points of view.
In between combat scenes, “American Sniper” abruptly cuts to Kyle at home, between deployments. His wife (Sienna Miller) asks him to open up and talk to her, but he keeps saying he has nothing to say until we believe him, even if she doesn’t. By the time she tells him “I need you to be human again,” the unspoken question hangs in the air: Was he ever?
In “American Sniper,” Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall have made as good a film as could be made from the substance of Kyle’s life and career. But greatness was never a possibility, not with a protagonist not all that interesting and with the surrounding circumstances making it impossible to go deeper and risk the movie’s critique of Kyle’s becoming overt.
Even so, Eastwood comes away with a shrewd and very well-made picture.
Rated: R for strong and disturbing war violence and language throughout, including some sexual references
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller
Directed by: Clint Eastwood