American Sniper (2014)

The most lethal sniper in U.S. history

In the past, director Clint Eastwood’s most interesting works have generally skirted around themes of masculinity, violence, virility and accountability and his newest picture, American Sniper, is no different, fitting nicely into Eastwood’s already impressive filmography. A harrowing and intimate take on the life of Chris Kyle — the deadliest marksman in U.S. military history with 255 kills under his name, 160 of which have been officially confirmed by the Department of Defense — American Sniper is a biographical war drama based on Kyle’s memoir, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History. Relentlessly violent and incredibly confronting, the film honors the life of the late Chris Kyle in a very admirable way — uncovering his more human side by painting a portrait of a man clearly shattered by the devastating effects of war.

American Sniper gives a taut, vivid and sad account into the life of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), from his childhood, growing up in Texas, where his father is shown teaching him how to hunt deer and fire a rifle, to his days as a rodeo cowboy where Kyle sees news coverage of the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings and enlists in the U.S. Navy, eventually being accepted for SEAL training, becoming a U.S. Navy SEAL sniper. We see Kyle’s reaction to the 2001 September 11 attacks before he is sent off to Iraq with one single purpose: to protect his brothers-in-arms. Kyle’s pinpoint accuracy saves countless lives on the battleground and stories of his courageous exploits earn him the nickname ‘Legend.’

Camping ... it's a legitimate strategy!
Camping … it’s a legitimate strategy!

However, Kyle eventually gains a reputation amongst his enemies, and with a price on his head, becomes a prime target for deadly insurgents. Facing a different kind of battle on the home front, Chris strives to be a good husband and father, despite spending most of his days halfway around the world in war-torn regions. Risking his life, which takes a toll on his family at home, Chris serves four relentless tours of duty in Iraq, personifying the spirit of the SEAL creed to ‘leave no one behind.’ But upon returning to his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), and kids, Chris finds it immensely difficult to detach himself from the strain of being on the battlefield.

With his target set clearly in sight, a back-in-form Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino (2008), has no qualms creating electrifying moments of war and macho-combat, predominantly when the SEAL’s plan to capture a ruthless killer known as ‘The Butcher’ (Mido Hamada) go awry or when Kyle is assigned to take down an expert enemy sniper, Mustafa (Sammy Sheik) — responsible for picking off dozens of U.S. Army combat engineers who are building a barricade — in the midst of an enormous sandstorm. While these missions make for enthralling warfare cinema, there is little context for the assignments and a lack of humanization for the one-dimensional targets, making the picture too politically conservative. Furthermore, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what Eastwood aims to achieve within American Sniper; is the film an exploration into the emotional reality of being a sniper, examining what it’s actually like to wait in the same spot for hours? Is the picture about military idolization? Is it about the scarred psyche of a military solder, surveying what runs through a sniper’s mind before taking a life? Or is American Sniper ultimately highlighting the ramifications of war, both on the battlefield and at home? Whilst the picture touches on all the previously stated elements, the feature lacks a specific focus and feels somewhat scattered, coming across as a companion piece to another war-themed flick.

Waiting for her G.I. Joe to return home.
Waiting for her G.I. Joe to return home.

At times American Sniper sends out a strong anti-war message but particular scenes blur these lines as various moments in the film exemplify a one-sided glorification of war. For instance, the 84-year-old Eastwood never shies away from illustrating the real horrors of combat and we are presented with a handful of alarming sequences including a scene where a child picks up a grenade and Kyle is forced to make a tough spare-of-the-moment decision, yet this is juxtaposed with a slow-motion shot at the culmination of the picture — when Kyle takes down Mustafa — a technique frequently used within Hollywood to praise action or make it look ‘cool.’ While one can never be too certain of Eastwood’s intentions regarding these questionable decisions, his heavy-handed character study is noticeably interrupted by the filmmaker’s choice to use distracting fake babies in several scenes, especially after real babies were used earlier on.

In spite of its flaws, American Sniper is anchored by the great performance of Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook (2012), who has remarkably transformed himself — physically and mentally — into a bulked-up Chris Kyle, faithfully depicting the sniper’s physique and persona for the role. In order to represent Kyle with unwavering respect, Cooper underwent a massive training routine, claiming that to accurately portray the character, he needed to undergo workouts specifically designed to give him great size, not muscle definition. When Cooper had built up his body and grown out his beard, many of Kyle’s friends and family said that they’d often do a ‘double take’ upon gazing at Cooper, a true testament to the actor’s hard work and commitment. From his eyes, to his accent, to his Texas strut, Cooper’s performance captures every aspect of Kyle’s person, bringing emotional gravitas and weight to the complex role, from the authentic handling of his sniper rifle to the detachment and disorientation shown in his post-traumatic stress disorder; this is a truly riveting expose. Similarly, the beautiful Sienna Miller, Foxcatcher (2014), plays well alongside Cooper, giving us believable emotion without ever overdoing it.

Quickscope Pro
Quickscope Pro

While it’s up for debate whether or not the more odious aspects of Chris Kyle’s character have been emitted from the narrative in an effort to paint him in a considerably positive light — such as apparently bragging about killing looters in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — American Sniper is a compelling and serviceable account of an all-American warrior blessed with special skills; a soldier whose life may have been messier than Hollywood is willing to admit. American Sniper concludes with the death of Kyle on February 2nd 2013, where stock footage showing thousands of people standing in line, along a highway, for his funeral are presented in a closing montage that will no doubt strike a chord with viewers regardless of the film’s politics. Whatever angle one wishes to approach the picture from, American Sniper is a powerful and provocative tribute to its real-life subject.

4 / 5 – Recommended

Reviewed by Mr. Movie

American Sniper is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia