‘I’ ON CULTURE
Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is an old-fashioned tough movie about war. The only film heroes when it comes to violence anymore seem to be superheroes or people bent on revenge or rescue. Chris Kyle was a super soldier and, more to the point, a sniper. He killed people often without warning and from a distance.
Men like this are often the villains. But Eastwood turns the story around and encourages views of heroism in this more or less biographical film.
Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is far closer to Dirty Harry than to many of the more recent heroes of Eastwood films. While many of us cheered Harry as he blew away bad guys, it was also clear that they were indeed bad guys. The directors made certain we saw the villainy before they got killed. In this movie, things are far less clear. Kyle is not out for revenge; he is far more assassin than direct warrior.
The movie is fairly straightforward, covering much of the Kyle’s life. He does not fit well in our society. He seems out of place everywhere but with his comrades. But once he is sent to Iraq after the 9/11 attacks, he quickly becomes the most famous of America’s snipers, nicknamed “The Legend.”
And throughout the times in battle, he struggles to be a good family man. In one particularly effective sequence, he is on the phone to his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) just as a battle breaks out. She is back home in Texas, has just found out she’s pregnant, and in the middle of the call, communications break off because a battle has begun.
The film also has one of the most harrowing sequences I have seen in recent movies. In the opening scene, American soldiers walk through the streets of a shattered Iraqi town. Like a protective angel, Kyle watches over them, ready to protect them from afar. But then a woman and a child appear. He can see the woman hand the child something through his rifle’s scope. He realizes, as we do, that it appears to be an explosive. The child runs toward the soldiers he is tasked to protect.
We can see and even feel the adjustment of the rifle’s sights, the very slight movements as it calibrated, how his breath slows. There is an incredible build-up of tension as we move to the moment of decision. And then the movie goes into some of his life story before getting to the time of decision. That decision has a lose-lose immediacy. Kill the kid and mother, or his comrades die. He does what he has to, and a bit more of his soul seems gone.
How accurate the story is can be debated. But there is no doubt he was decorated many times, and his official “kill count” was 160. (Although Kyle claimed more than 250, many could not be confirmed, which is normal in wartime circumstances.)
Eastwood, who often focuses heavily on morality, is more straightforward than normal, allowing the viewer to decide morality. We can see how Kyle’s decisions impinge on his own feelings of self-worth. He clearly does not enjoy the work he does. He killed more people than a serial killer and often agonizes over the work, but also understands that he is protecting his fellow warriors.
Another effective scene has one of the soldiers thanking him for saving his life. He understands the importance of what he does but also recognizes how it has stripped away a lot of his humanity. He is not Dirty Harry; he is a true soldier.
Cooper gives a brilliant portrayal. He looks and acts nothing like his normal self. Most times when we see a star, we begin by thinking of the actor, not as the part but as the persona we expect from previous performances. Cooper avoids that; he becomes Kyle. He has been nominated for an Oscar for his work, and he deserved it. Miller is also excellent as his wife. We can empathize watching her worry as he fights and agonizing when he’s with her in body but not in spirit.
I found this a strong and disturbing movie. Kyle was a hero (he was murdered about a year and a half ago in Texas), but not in a way we want to glorify. But in terrifying days, it rings with an elemental truth about the nature of war. It is strong and well-made; one of the best pictures of the year.