The opening scenes of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper are so pivotal, to the main character and our understanding of him, that Eastwood shows it to us twice. We’re introduced to Navy SEAL and expert sniper Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper) at a crucial moment: he’s on a mission, has spotted a mother/son team about to ignite a bomb and is in a position to terminate them both and save U.S. soldiers nearby. Kyle can see them holding the explosive, though the soldier sitting next to Kyle warns him, “if you’re wrong, you’ll get buried for this.”
At first, we don’t see if Kyle fires. Instead, the story whips around to Kyle’s childhood. In a brisk assortment of scenes, we see Kyle’s dad raise his son with tough love, teaching him at a young age how to operate a fire arm. Kyle’s days as a rodeo star are interrupted by his horror over 9/11, which inspires him to enlist and serve his country. Initially, he appears to be a top rate Navy SEAL but not an able sniper. Then, after shooting a snake outside of the target range, he informs his superior that he’s better at hitting targets that are alive.
The story moves by quickly and we’re back at the first scene. This time, we see the outcome of the horrible choice Kyle must make. By emphasizing this scene, showing it to us twice, Eastwood sums up both the appeal and hard truth about Chris Kyle: he was a hero and deserving of the “Legend” nickname his fellow soldiers gave him. Having to shoot living targets from far away is Kyle’s skill but he’s not boastful of his abilities and we see the psychological toll it takes on him.
Cooper brings intriguing layers to the role. In Cooper’s hands, Kyle is humble but tough, kind but with a fierce inner strength. We immediately like Kyle, even as there’s a stubbornness to him, and a willingness to put his life in danger and his families’ peace of mind in jeopardy. Kyle did more than one tour of duty and even those who fought alongside him seem astonished by how many times he knowingly put himself in terrible danger.
At age 84, Eastwood has made a tough, no-nonsense and exciting tribute to a courageous and fascinating man. This is almost as good as Katheryn Bigelow’s previous films for similar reasons: it avoids politicizing the war and gives intense focus to the inner turmoil and insane bravery of those who fight for their country.
Eastwood doesn’t allow for sentimentality, which the film could have benefited from. We don’t need the screenplay to acknowledge how troubling it is for Kyle, a father, to have to shoot a child trained to be a terrorist, as the angst is all over Cooper’s face. However, the ending is moving but abrupt and could have been more explanatory and less ambiguous.
Cooper, Eastwood’s direction and the cinematography couldn’t be better. The only other movie star in the cast is Sienna Miller, who is unrecognizable and solid in a potentially thankless role as Kyle’s long suffering wife. After a lot of non-starter roles in movies like the first G.I. Joe, Miller finally has a chance to shine, though this is Cooper’s film all the way.
Only one single moment, involving a slow-motion CGI bullet, gives in to rah-rah crowd pleasing. Otherwise, the stripped down human drama and harrowing impact of the combat scenes are refreshingly devoid of gloss. Eastwood once made Heartbreak Ridge, a comparatively corny, formulaic movie about soldiers who trained and fought in the battle of Grenada. American Sniper is his second war film set in a relatively modern time and is another of his crowning achievements as a filmmaker. He already made one directorial change of step this year, with his failed Frankie Valli musical. That movie didn’t work but I give Eastwood credit for constantly taking chances. The life of Chris Kyle was another cinematic risk but it pays off mightily and is one of Eastwood’s best films.