American Sniper (2014)
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Director Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper,” based on the memoir of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, almost merits two separate reviews: one for the film as entertainment, and one for the film as an accurate biography. Personally, I’m not sure how I feel about the legacy Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper) left. I am not denying his heroism – I feel safer in my own home knowing that he and others like him defended our nation abroad – but reports of a bar fight with former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura and the alleged sniping of looters in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina obviously make me cautious to praise this man as a great American hero. When does the sheepdog (according to Kyle’s father, the one who defends the sheep) turn into the wolf (or, the uninitiated aggressor)? It’s a classic case of the ends justifying the means. “American Sniper” paints a morally complex portrait of Chris Kyle, but it was necessary in order to encapsulate the man who called his job “fun” (he killed between 160 and 260 in the Iraq War) and even went so far as to say “I only wish I had killed more.” He was eaten up by the fact that coming home meant not being able to protect more soldiers’ lives. So, I guess I can understand his desire to continue with what would have been a fourth tour of duty in the Middle East. But still, the self-proclaimed “cowboy” wasn’t exactly morally flawless.
But as a piece of entertainment, “American Sniper” may be the best film about any war since “The Hurt Locker” won best picture six years ago. Clint Eastwood, as if anyone is surprised, captures, like nobody else could, the harsh realities of the Iraq War. While his film, written by Jason Hall, notably leaves out some pieces of Kyle’s life that wouldn’t have supported their hero myth (including the above incidents), it doesn’t completely shy away from Kyle’s flaws. And, overall, the film treats the scenes of Kyle’s life that it does cover pretty fairly. Yes, some events are tightened in scope and time to better fit a two-hour runtime, but no more than most biopics. The flaws of omission are one thing, but there isn’t a solid argument to be made that Eastwood completely oversold the story.
Beating out the likes of David Oyelowo (“Selma”) and Jake Gyllenhaal (“Nightcrawler”), Bradley Cooper’s name came as something of a surprise when it was called as a nominee for the Academy Award for Best Actor. After “American Sniper” didn’t receive a single Golden Globe or Screen Actors Guild nomination, the news of six Oscar nominations (including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay) came as something of a shock. The Best Actor race seemed pretty locked up, and Bradley Cooper seemed to have no place in it. But now, I can’t see why he wasn’t a favorite to be nominated a long time ago. Again, possible personal differences aside, Cooper embodies Kyle’s passionate patriotism and love for God, country, and family like few actors could have. He exemplifies the cowboy persona Kyle gave himself, and showed a tenderness that Kyle wasn’t afraid to express. He gives what may have been the best performance of a great career. As Kyle’s wife Taya, Sienna Miller shows the vulnerabilities of the military wife. “American Sniper” shows the devastating effects that war can have on soldiers and their families back home. Even soldiers returning home can be faced with a difficult life (as is shown with the story of Chris’s brother Jeff, played by Keir O’Donnell, who was deployed shortly after Chris and came home with a severe case of PTSD). The Kyle marriage was not all peaches and cream, and “American Sniper” didn’t falsely represent the hardships Taya had to face mothering two children while Chris was at war.
On a baser level, “American Sniper” also succeeds in the traditional action-packed war movie sense, too. In long-range sniping situations where Kyle had to make life-or death decisions regarding men, women, and even children, the cinematography (from Oscar-nominated Tom Stern) and beautifully haunting music (from five-time Oscar-nominee Ennio Morricone) built incredible suspense. But Kyle was in a few combat situations where he wasn’t the only one with sniping skills. In those cases, “American Sniper” gives you faster-paced battles like you might be used to. These, I assure you, are just as intense as the sniping scenes.
Whether you think “American Sniper” is patriotic or propagandistic, Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper give the Iraq War the best film treatment it has seen in over half a decade. It’s a beautiful, morally ambiguous legend that deserves to be told, even if it could have been told a bit more truthfully. Push aside politics and let this Oscar-nominated film move you. It certainly has that ability.