A mere six months after releasing the Four Seasons drama “Jersey Boys,” Clint Eastwood has again lapped his younger directing colleagues with his second film of 2014 and his best movie in years. “American Sniper” is quintessentially Eastwood: a tautly made, confidently constructed examination of the themes that have long dominated his work.
“American Sniper,” based on Navy SEAL marksman Chris Kyle’s best-selling memoir, is both a tribute to the warrior and a lament for war. Shirking politics, the film instead sets its sights squarely on its elite protagonist (Bradley Cooper), a traditional American war hero in an untraditional war.
Here is an archetypal American: a chew-spitting, beer-drinking Texas cowboy who enlists after the 1998 bombings of American embassies with resolute righteousness and noble patriotic duty. The once wayward Kyle finds his true calling in the Navy, and he heads to Iraq with a moral certainty that no amount of time served or kills will shake. He’s there to kill bad guys — “savages” he calls them at one point.
And kill he does. With 160 confirmed kills, Kyle is believed to be the most lethal sniper in U.S. history. The film starts with a remarkable scene of Kyle poised on an Iraq rooftop with a young boy holding a grenade in his scope. Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall flashback to Kyle’s upbringing, where his father taught him about “the gift of aggression” and the honor of defending others.
It’s the first of many cuts between far-away battle and the personal life Kyle leaves behind. Shortly before shipping out, he weds Taya, played by Sienna Miller, who gives a refreshingly lively take on a usually one-dimensional character. She’s more cynical than her husband, who returns to their growing family between tours, his head increasingly stuck in Iraq.
He’s much like a terse and weary Western hero torn from home; an early shot through the front door of their home evokes the famous final image of John Ford’s “The Searchers.” Instead of a Stetson, Kyle wears a baseball cap, turned backward when he takes aim. “I’m better when it’s breathing,” he tells an early instructor after shooting a snake.
Cooper is extraordinary as Kyle. He has beefed up, adopted an authentic Texas drawl and endowed Kyle with a commanding swagger. The war steadily takes its toll on his psyche, even if he’d never admit it. When Kyle’s younger brother, passing him on a Tarmac in Iraq, curses the war, Kyle looks him at with genuine befuddlement.
Eastwood has, of course, long been drawn to stories about violence — necessary if regrettable — in meting out justice and the cost to those that carry its heavy burden. The question is if the mythical rending of “American Sniper” fits its more complex basis of reality. Kyle, who died tragically in early 2013, belies easy summary. He, for one, boasted of shooting looters in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. His clarity of mission could also be said to mirror the mistaken convictions of politicians that put him in Iraq.
But I believe Eastwood’s purpose here is to depict a straight arrow in the fog of a questionable war. (A pivotal late scene takes place in a gathering sand storm that obliterates the frame in clouds of dust.) The soldier is true; the war — confused, bureaucratic — isn’t.
The film’s narrow perspective, centered on Kyle, is both the best and worst thing about it. “American Sniper” may be a much needed tribute to the sacrifice of American soldiers, but it’s lacking context. Few Iraqis here are seen as anything but the enemy.
When Eastwood delved into World War II in “Flags of Our Fathers,” his switch to the other side of the battlefield for “Letters From Iwo Jima” remains one of the most profound moral decisions in moviemaking. As fine as “American Sniper” is, it’s in need of a companion piece.