by George Wolf
Clint Eastwood has the reputation of a low maintenance, “let’s not overthink this” type of director. Sometimes that’s much too apparent, with films lacking in structure, passion and detail.
American Sniper is not one of those films.
This one is tense, heartfelt, wise and weighty, driven by a revelatory lead performance and crafted by a director deeply invested in doing justice to his subject.
It’s based on the autobiography of Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL credited with being “the deadliest sniper in American history.” The very nature of the story is rife with opportunities for manipulation, be them jingoistic or judgmental, but credit Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall with sidestepping them all.
They grab you by the throat with a breathless opening, then expertly work alternating periods of deafening brutality and quiet stillness. In fact, the silence in American Sniper could be easily be regarded as part of the original score, as it is utilized just as effectively as any stirring music.
As Kyle, Bradley Cooper is astonishing and a well-deserved Oscar nominee. Anyone who still thinks he’s just a pretty boy needs to put down People magazine and pay attention to the career Cooper’s been putting together. He’s turned in one stellar, varied performance after another the last few years, and here he commands the screen like never before.
More than just adding weight or adopting Kyle’s Texas drawl, Cooper completely embodies Kyle from the inside out. We see his early determination to fight America’s enemies just as sincerely as we feel the paradox of a man ravaged by the battlefield who can’t feel at home anywhere else. Eastwood smartly gives Cooper many tight close ups and the actor doesn’t flinch, letting his face speak volumes on duty and conflict.
Are there sad ironies in the fact that many who were driven to military service by the events of 9/11 were sent to Iraq? Of course, but this is not the film to explore them, or appease those who will be satisfied only if Kyle is painted as a merciless monster or, conversely, an untouchable hero. By avoiding these absolutes, American Sniper becomes a gripping look at the other side of The Hurt Locker. It’s an intensely personal story that manages to feel like part of America’s very fabric without selling its soul to do so.