Based on the life of Chris Kyle (Cooper), a crack shot who became a sniper for the US forces in Iraq, the film charts his brutal training, his romance of tough-talking Taya (Miller), his highly decorated tours of duty and obsession with tracking down the high-level Insurgent known as The Butcher. And his breakdown.
Early on in Clint Eastwood’s new film, we take a detour back to the Texan childhood of Navy SEAL superstar Chris Kyle. Here, around the family table, he informs his tough-loving pop that he had to rescue his younger brother from a bully by beating the thug to the ground. “There are three types of people,” his father responds as if imparting one of those classic, Eastwood dictums, “sheep, wolves and sheep dogs.” Sheep dogs protect the sheep from the wolves.
Years later, enraged by 9/11, Kyle enlists as a sniper and become a sheep dog like no other. The ground troops, going door to door through treacherous streets, knew him as “Legend”. The Insurgents, who put a spiralling price on his head, dubbed him “The Devil Of Ramadi”. Kyle did four tours of duty in Iraq, amassing 161 confirmed kills. And gradually this true-blue patriot fell apart.
American Sniper has been good for Clint Eastwood. He’s not been himself lately. Venturing off range, his films have become fiddly and unsure of themselves. The indifferent biopics of J. Edgar and Invictus, the maudlin spiritual-guff of Hereafter, the big-screen adaptation of stage-musical Jersey Boys that ended up so sombre and unappealing. You can’t fault the productivity; at 84 Eastwood is a monument to cut-the-crap directorial stamina. Still, it was beginning to feel as if that mighty heart wasn’t really in it anymore.
American Sniper has put blood back in his veins. Based on Kyle’s autobiography and nursed to the screen by star Bradley Cooper, this is Eastwood most valuable work since Letters From Iwo Jima. More to the point, the story of this God-loving Texan boy and sharpest shooter in American military history, fits the director’s lean, thoughtful aesthetic like a made-to-measure poncho.
The sniper’s task is to hunker down on a nearby rooftop and pick off gunmen, bystanders, mothers, children, anyone who he judges to be smuggling an IED or weapon beneath their clothing. And Kyle had nerves, less of steel than reinforced tungsten, able to stow his conscience to the extent that he could take a call from home just as an isolated boy enters his crosshairs.
Straightaway you are reminded of Eastwood’s ‘90s hot streak: Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby and Mystic River — dark, compelling, psychologically astute tales of heartland American men awakening to themselves. It’s the great thematic backbone of his entire career — the wages of violence. Moreover, the sunbaked, outlaw streets of Ramadi, Fallujah and Baghdad echo the scum-hive border-towns and crossfire rhythms of the big man’s Western mythology. Maybe somewhere in Kyle’s Texan imagination he thought of himself as the star of a Western.
So Clint Eastwood has been good for American Sniper. Once Steven Spielberg passed on directing the project, he swung into the saddle and honed down Kyle’s biography into a tightly focused journey from boot camp to burnout. He was also determined to make a thriller. Told with trademark dramatic economy and gripping veracity, this is the most exciting and muscular Iraq movie we’ve had.
Even in the helter-skelter of the combat zone, events are driven by story rather than the collection of stressed-out fragments that made up The Hurt Locker. Across his tours, Kyle develops a personal crusade to track down “The Butcher” whose portrayal as a snarling, driller-killing lunatic hits one of the film’s few bum notes. However, standing in his way is the Insurgent’s own super-sniper. Amid squalls of dust and debris, a dangerously obsessive duel is acted out. A head-to-head that will culminate in a stunning firefight where Kyle’s over-eager infiltration unit set upon by Alien-like hoards of Insurgent desperadoes on the roof of a warehouse and engulfed in a Biblical sandstorm.
Yet hanging over the blood rush of the action is an atmosphere of melancholy. Concepts of heroism, justice, and the necessity of violence are never clear-cut. Even amongst the chest-bumping macho codes of men under fire there persists a background radiation of desperation.
Thickened-up like a wrestler, Cooper gives a brilliantly uncluttered yet expressive — and surely nomination-worthy — performance. Kyle is a vivid, complex character who believes he is a simple guy. He loves his wife, his fellow soldier, and, yes sir, his country. He has convinced himself of the absolute moral virtue of the American mission. Hell, he probably loved Heartbreak Ridge. Kyle, a bone-weary comrade points out, is your classic war junkie, addicted to the “lighting in your bones” of combat.
It is to Cooper’s credit that we are never sure if we should consider Kyle a hero. Movie definitions become blurred. Even those categories we know as shellshock and trauma. Kyle’s decline is more a sense of panic slowly building like a sandstorm on the horizon.
In another valiant performance that could have succumbed to the ground-down wife category, Sienna Miller brings humour and pride to Taya Kyle. It is through her frank eyes we see the erosion of Kyle soul. “Your hands are different,” she tells him, warily eyeing an alien figure home on leave. She’s a vital asset, the emotionally available counterpoint to the unreadable Kyle. In a sense, the film is a romance-under-fire.
Eastwood never dwells on a point. God forbid this should ever be taken as some kind of psychodrama. He’s perfectly content to cut straight from the bosom of the family to the embrace of his brothers-in-arms in a heartbeat. Equally, the bigger picture is kept at bay. This is Kyle’s story, and global politics doesn’t figure in it. In fact, it is the absence of moral debate that stirs such a fascinating story. In the immediacy of a war zone there isn’t space for right and wrong. So can a soldier ever be right or wrong?
One last thing. There is another, shocking aspect of Kyle’s life that Eastwood basically treats as a footnote, giving it only five minutes of screen-time. Clearly, it didn’t figure in the director’s thinking, and his film doesn’t necessarily suffer for it. But you are left wondering what that other film might have told us about the enigmatic Chief Petty Officer Kyle.
Oscar heralds will no doubt dub it The Hurt Locker for snipers, but the fitting combo of Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper have created a thrilling Iraq war story that manages to both honour the necessities of heroism and ruminate on what heroism might cost a man.