A film that gives an unflinching depiction of war but is lean on the domestic affairs of its central character, director Clint Eastwood’s powerful but patchy “American Sniper” tells the story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), the most lethal sniper in U.S. history. A Texas rodeo cowboy whose sense of patriotism compels him to head to the local recruitment office after news of the 1998 embassy bombings, Kyle ends up becoming a Navy SEAL and completing four post-9/11 tours in Iraq, during which he becomes known as “Legend” by friendlies and “Devil” by the enemy. Before he’s deployed, though, he meets his future wife Taya (Sienna Miller) at a bar full of frogmen. She says that she’s repulsed by the SEALs’ arrogant and macho attitude (you can almost hear The Righteous Brothers crooning “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” in the background) only to fall for Kyle’s country boy charm; she hops on the fast track to marriage and babies.
Screenwriter Jason Hall’s adaptation of Kyle’s controversial memoir begins with the tried-and-true biopic formula used in Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken” and numerous others — that is, hook us with a pivotal sequence before plunging into the subject’s formative years. As “Sniper” opens, we’re introduced to Kyle perched on a rooftop, observing a mother and child who may or may not be carrying an explosive device as they approach an American ground unit, while his spotter (Kyle Gallner) unnecessarily reminds him of the grave consequences of shooting an unarmed civilian. Before he takes action, the film whisks us back to a hunting excursion with dad (Ben Reed), where young Kyle (Cole Konis) kills his first deer; then it’s on to a school brawl that has the kid set straight his younger brother’s bully with his fists. A stern dinner conversation in which dad nods his approval to Chris for “finishing it” confirms that Kyle is a burgeoning badass.
Here, “American Sniper” seems like it’s simply going through the motions, treading between blunt and heavy-handed, as it also does during scenes between Cooper and Miller, who endures her second bereaved housewife role of the year (see also “Foxcatcher”) with at least a couple of stand-out scenes. A fleeting conversation on a tarmac between Kyle and his recently deployed brother Jeff cuts short an emotive and promising performance from Keir O’Donnell. Ultimately, we get the point, as Kyle, home briefly between tours, grows more and more withdrawn from his family and less and less understanding of anything other than his duty (even when his wife begs him to stay home). Cooper received his third-in-a-row Oscar nomination for the role, adding a thick beard, thicker Texas drawl and several lbs. in preparation, and his sturdy, reserved performance indicates a dangerous reticence that wears thinner with each deployment.
The film, too, reflects Kyle’s hardened disposition. Eastwood maintains a similar tone to Kathryn Bigelow’s fictional Baghdad-set procedural “The Hurt Locker”, and the octogenarian auteur and his “Jersey Boys” DP Tom Stern excel when it comes to battle sequences and quietly intense moments in which Kyle considers his targets through the scope. The embellished bits stand out like pure fiction — a rival sniper is treated like a character from a “Bourne” film; other moments are difficult to digest for an entirely different reason. The film’s most horrific stand-off involves a character called “The Butcher”, a sadist who uses his weapon of a choice — a power drill — on a small child after his family co-operates with Kyle’s unit.
Some have viewed the film as jingoistic tripe that glorifies the methodical act of killing. My interpretation of “American Sniper” might appear a bit superficial when considering such pointed criticisms. I am not, nor have I ever been in the military. To me, as I imagine it is to the vast majority of the population, combat is unfathomable. I’ve not exhaustively scrutinized the facts in Kyle’s memoirs. Regardless, there’s no doubt that the decorated Navy SEAL kept countless U.S. troops above ground. The film, like many of its genre, is designed to get us as close to that perspective as possible, and not since Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down” have I felt so immersed in a theater of battle. I just wish the film had more deeply explored the repercussions of Kyle’s prolonged exposure to such conditions, but after such an intense two hours, most audiences will be happy just to see him get back to the world.