Directed by Clint Eastwood
Like the man it is about, a Texas cowboy raised by his father to use his strength to put bullies in their place, “American Sniper” ignores everything but its subject, distilling character from action and translating life into a war movie about the manhunt for a dangerous insurgent sniper, albeit one with a gentle giant of a hero. It’s within that framework that “Sniper” reaps its greatest rewards as Bradley Cooper brings Kyle’s surety and solidity to life without turning him into action hero or war film stereotype.
Unassuming and easy-going, Kyle is just as at home on the mean streets of Fallujah as he is, well, at home, and Cooper’s expression of Kyle’s desire to just help the guys around him comes across as nothing less than genuine, whether he’s meeting his eventual wife in a bar or helping some Marines breach a door. More important and more difficult, he never talks about himself or what he feels – mainly because he doesn’t seem to know how – and yet Cooper is able to express his confusion with little anguish or even dialogue. When a wounded vet approaches him spouting thanks for saving his life, Kyle can only nod and say “okay” before beating a hasty retreat. It’s a testament not just to Cooper’s own confidence but Eastwood’s classic naturalist direction that nothing is lost in the translation from silence to thought.
And yet despite that naturalism, “Sniper” frequently reduces its world to stark black and white, true and false, good and bad. When the events of 9/11 alert Kyle to the biggest bullies on the planet, he is soon on his way to the local recruiter’s office, quickly rising up the echelons of the military elite to become a Navy SEAL, a job at which he excels despite the heavy physical and mental cost. That cost is handled rarely, however and usually in terms of good (Kyle and his buddies) and evil (women who would force a child to become a suicide bomber), with little implication that those appellations could be flipped outside of the pictures lines.
It wouldn’t be so noticeable if “Sniper” didn’t focus so much on the horrible things Kyle observes but never has to participate in; the fog of war has no place in Eastwood’s world. It’s as if he has found in Kyle the warrior America sees itself producing (as opposed to the William Calleys and Charles Graners) being allowed to fight war the country sees itself fighting.
Which would be fine if one of the war’s broken weren’t waiting for Kyle at the end of the road, a reality the simplified mythmaking of “Sniper” isn’t prepared to embrace, instead pushing it aside as a mere footnote.
In fact, most of his home life is a footnote, as Kyle ships out almost as soon as he is wed, interacting with his wife (Miller) more via satellite phone from the battlefield than in person, which stretches credulity more than a little. Instead, “Sniper” spends most of its focus and its climax on Kyle’s hunt for the mysterious insurgent sniper Mustafa, as if the war could be summed by a confrontation between one villain and one hero. And for a glorious few moments it almost seems to be true, as Eastwood throws aside his classic aesthetic for giant sandstorms, advancing insurgent armies and a slow-motion sniper gun battle. It’s a visual last stand fitting for the myth of The Legend.
Except that’s not the end for him. It’s on the homefront that Kyle faces his biggest challenge as he tries to not only put his own life back together, but many of his former comrades-in-arms as well. “Sniper” never puts quite as much effort into those elements, leaving them as almost an afterthought like much of the ‘over here’ material. Which unfortunately sums up the pitfalls which keep “Sniper” from benefiting from so much of what works about it.
For all its easy humanity, anything which doesn’t feed the legend is pushed to the side. The end result is off-putting and suggests that for all the care Eastwood and company take with Kyle’s legacy, the man himself and the world he lived in is still a mystery to them and to us.
Opening on Thursday, December 25, in select cities and expanding nationwide on January 16.