Saturday, January 24, 2015

American Sniper


Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Jake McDorman, Luke Grimes

Rated R for Strong and Disturbing War Violence, and for Language Throughout including Some Sexual References

I'm sitting here at the computer, trying to find the words to open a review of Clint Eastwood's "American Sniper," the biopic of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, "the most lethal sniper in U.S. History."  I am at a loss.  How can I adequately describe the emotional effect of watching this film?  I cannot.  What I will say is that this movie is bravura filmmaking by a man at the top of his game, and it's anchored by a brilliant lead performance by Bradley Cooper.

Chris Kyle (Cooper) was a relatively simple man with simple ambitions.  He was a Texas farmboy until he was affected strongly enough by the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Nairobi to join the Navy.  He eventually became a SEAL, and married a girl named Taya (Miller) that he saved from being hit on at a bar by a married guy.  After 9/11, he shipped out to Afghanistan and eventually became a famous sniper; the U.S. forces called him "The Legend" while to the Taliban he was known as "The Devil of Ramadi."  But despite his patriotism and devotion to his fellow soldiers, war is taking a toll on his personality and his relationship to Taya.

The film's biggest strength is the performance of Bradley Cooper, who is is positively tremendous as Kyle.  Originally a lightweight character actor known for comedies like "The Hangover" and "Wedding Crashers," his career received a huge boost when he scored an Oscar nomination in the overrated romantic comedy smash "Silver Linings Playbook."  His career has blossomed both as a movie star and a legitimate actor, with him becoming the 10th actor to earn three consecutive Oscar nominations for Best Actor (two of which were from working with the notoriously difficult David O. Russell).

I say this to prove to any doubters about Cooper's abilities (I was one of them until I saw this movie): the man can really act.  This is a career-defining performance, capturing the complexities of Kyle's character without highlighting them.  One of the most original, not to mention effective, aspects of his performance is how he and director Clint Eastwood tackle his difficulty leaving the war behind.  They portray him as a man who is trying to save everyone, which is becoming an all-out obsession.  Of course, no single man can fight a war alone, but the thought of him putting everyone in danger by not being there gives him real pause.  But this carries a heavy mental price, which includes PTSD and the decreasing stability of his marriage to Taya.

Cooper takes pains to make sure that Kyle is not "too good to be true."  He is intensely devoted to his fellow soldiers and can be charming and friendly, but he has some serious personality flaws.  In the zeal to protect the Marines, he becomes obsessed with killing Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), his Taliban counterpoint.  He becomes emotionally closed off and at times curt.  Neither the actor nor the director soft-pedal the violence (which is bloody and at times very disturbing) or the resulting trauma.  Through it all, Kyle remains intensely sympathetic, which gives the film a lot of its punch.

In a much different way, Clint Eastwood deserves as much credit for the film as Cooper.  Although he's played a few legendary tough guys (particularly "Dirty" Harry Callahan), he has exhibited some skill as a director.  His relatively low-key and unforced style has resulted in an uneven resume, which has some good films ("Changeling," "Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil") and some duds ("Play Misty for Me," "Million Dollar Baby").  Nothing could have prepared me for his work on "American Sniper," however.  The action scenes are executed with the skill of a consummate craftsman, uncensored and packed with tension and adrenaline (there is one in a sandstorm that is almost unbearably intense).  This is a movie that achieves startling intensity without sacrificing it's emotional complexity.  Comparisons to "Saving Private Ryan" and "The Deer Hunter" are entirely appropriate.

As good as the film is, there are a few nitpicks.  The editing in the first half is a little choppy, and some of the dialogue is hard to make out.  Also, Mustafa's role, while well-integrated, is a little too Hollywood-ized.  He's too pumped up to become totally effective.  Two of his comrades, his sniping assistant Marc Lee (Grimes) and Biggles (McDorman), his fellow SEAL, are given too little development for them to have the effect that Eastwood desires.  And is it really believable for Kyle to be talking to Taya when he's sniping in the field?  But those are nitpicks, and dismissed fairly easily.

The film has come under fire by some, including Michael Moore and Seth Rogen, as being "pro-war."  I'm wondering where they got that idea.  The film is totally apolitical.  The Bush administration isn't mentioned even tangentially, and the reasons for being in Afghanistan aren't brought up at all.  Kyle is shown to be a hero, but Eastwood doesn't lionize him or anyone else.  The film isn't about anything but it's subject, and in doing so, it puts a human face on people who have become statistics.

Eastwood has taken us right down into the middle of this chaos and emerged with a powerful, unforgettable experience.  As I was leaving the theater, there were more than a few people who were choking back tears.  Believe me, I could sympathize.  It's as a thought-provoking and emotional experience that I've seen in a long time.

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