Film Review: ‘American Sniper’

American Sniper

A superb performance by Bradley Cooper anchors Clint Eastwood's harrowing and thoughtful dramatization of the life of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle.

A skillful, straightforward combat picture gradually develops into something more complex and ruminative in Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper,” an account of the Iraq War as observed through the rifle sights of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, whose four tours of duty cemented his standing as the deadliest marksman in U.S. military history. Hard-wiring the viewer into Kyle’s battle-scarred psyche thanks to an excellent performance from a bulked-up Bradley Cooper, this harrowing and intimate character study offers fairly blunt insights into the physical and psychological toll exacted on the front lines, yet strikes even its familiar notes with a sobering clarity that finds the 84-year-old filmmaker in very fine form. Depressingly relevant in the wake of recent headlines, Warners’ Dec. 25 release should drum up enough grown-up audience interest to work as a serious-minded alternative to more typical holiday fare, and looks to extend its critical and commercial reach well into next year.

Although Steven Spielberg was set to direct before exiting the project last summer (just a few months after Kyle’s death in Texas at the age of 38), “American Sniper” turns out to be very much in Eastwood’s wheelhouse, emerging as arguably the director’s strongest, most sustained effort in the eight years since his WWII double-header of “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters From Iwo Jima.” As was clear in those films and this one, few directors share Eastwood’s confidence with large-scale action, much less his inclination to investigate the brutality of what he shows us — to acknowledge both the pointlessness and the necessity of violence while searching for more honest, ambiguous definitions of heroism than those to which we’re accustomed. In these respects and more, Kyle — who earned the nickname “Legend” from his fellow troops, achieved a staggering record of 160 confirmed kills, and became one of the most coveted targets of the Iraqi insurgency — makes for a uniquely fascinating and ultimately tragic case study.

We first meet Kyle (Cooper) as he’s hunched over a rooftop overlooking a blown-out structure in Fallujah, Iraq, taking deadly aim at a local woman and her young son walking some distance away; only Kyle’s specific vantage allows him to see that they’re preparing to lob a grenade at nearby Marines. The fraught situation and its queasy-making stakes thus introduced, the film abruptly flashes back some 30-odd years to Kyle’s Texas childhood, establishing him as a skilled shooter at a young age (played by Cole Konis) as well as a brave protector to his younger brother, Jeff (Luke Sunshine). After a brief rodeo career, Cooper’s Kyle joins the ranks of the Navy SEALs, whose brutal training regimen — including the muddy beachfront endurance tests of the dreaded Hell Week — is depicted more extensively here than they were in last year’s military-memoir adaptation “Lone Survivor.”

As scripted by Jason Hall (paring down Kyle’s 2012 autobiography, written with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice), these flashbacks form the film’s most conventional stretch, including a tartly humorous scene at a bar where Kyle charms his way past the defenses of the beautiful Taya (Sienna Miller), despite her early claim that she’d never date one of those “arrogant, self-centered pricks” who call themselves SEALs. Yet Kyle belies that description, revealing himself as a God-fearing, red-blooded American galvanized into fighting, as so many were, by the shock of 9/11 and his determination to avenge his country. Indeed, the ink is barely dry on his and Taya’s marriage license when Kyle gets shipped off to Fallujah, where he and his comrades are well served by his exceptional abilities as a sniper.

It’s here that the story catches up with that tense mother-and-child setup, this time not sparing us the gruesome, inevitable aftermath. Describing his actions to a fellow soldier, Kyle breathes, “That was evil like I had never seen before” — a statement that lingers meaningfully as we watch him racking up kill after kill, efficiently dispatching the male Iraqi insurgents he spies surreptitiously arming themselves in a back alley, or driving a car bomb in the direction of American soldiers. In each of these life-or-death scenarios, Kyle must use what little time he has to swiftly assess whether his targets indeed pose an immediately actionable threat, lest he face recriminations from lawyers, liberals and other members of the Blame America First crowd (a point the book drives home far more vehemently than the film).

Not surprisingly, Eastwood avoids wading into the ideological murk of the situation and sticks tightly to Kyle’s p.o.v., yielding an almost purely experiential view of the conflict in which none of the other soldiers becomes more than a two-dimensional sketch, dates and locations are rarely identified, and any larger geopolitical context has been deliberately elided. (Some details have clearly been fudged; Kyle says he’s 30 when he enlists, but he was actually in his mid-20s.) Yet the achievement of “American Sniper” is the way it subtly undermines and expands its protagonist’s initially gung-ho worldview, as Eastwood deftly teases out any number of logistical and ethical complications: Kyle’s frustration at always having to engage from a distance rather than on the ground with his comrades; the sometimes difficult collaboration between the SEALs and the less well-trained Marines, especially when they begin the dangerous task of clearing out Iraqi houses; and above all, the near-impossibility of figuring out whom to trust in an environment where everyone is presumed hostile.

This becomes especially crucial when Kyle and company receive orders to take down the Al Qaeda terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his vicious second-in-command, the Butcher (Mido Hamada), named in part for his imaginative use of power drills. The hunt for the Butcher — and, eventually, a Syrian-born sniper named Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), whose lethal precision rivals Kyle’s own — leads the troops into a series of breathless skirmishes, from a horrific Al Qaeda attack on the family of an Iraqi sheikh (Navid Negahban) to a nighttime ambush that develops as a result of Kyle’s extraordinary perceptiveness in a seemingly benign situation. Working as usual with d.p. Tom Stern and editors Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach, Eastwood handles these ambitious setpieces with an unfussy professionalism worthy of his subject, the camera maintaining a gritty, ground-level feel (with the exception of a few crane shots demanded by the complex staging of the film’s climactic shootout) while switching deftly among a range of perspectives that nonetheless maintain a strong continuity of action.

Less adroitly handled are the regular cutaways to Taya and their two children back in Texas, providing necessary but over-emphatic reminders that Kyle’s loved ones are paying dearly for his military service. Taya seems to have a bad habit of catching her husband on the phone at those unfortunate moments when mortar and shrapnel are exploding around him (which is understandably often). When he’s home on leave, he’s painfully distant, reluctant to talk about his experiences and barely able to function, which is Taya’s cue to spout some gratingly obvious dialogue of the “Even when you’re here, you’re not here” variety. What works in these scenes, however, is the disquieting sense that Kyle’s normal life has shifted into the war zone, and that his time with his family is passing him by in fast, jarring blips; we see his kids at only brief intervals here, and the rate at which they grow up must be as startling for him as it is for us.

In its revelation of character through action, its concern with procedure rather than politics, and its focus on an exceptionally gifted U.S. soldier struggling to make sense of his small yet essential place in a war he only partly understands, Eastwood’s picture can’t help but recall “The Hurt Locker,” and if it’s ultimately a more earnest and prosaic, less formally daring affair than Kathryn Bigelow’s film, it nevertheless emerges as one of the few dramatic treatments of the U.S.-Iraq conflict that can stand in its company. And just as “The Hurt Locker” found revelatory depths in Jeremy Renner, so “American Sniper” hinges on Cooper’s restrained yet deeply expressive lead performance, allowing many of the drama’s unspoken implications to be read plainly in the actor’s increasingly war-ravaged face.

Cooper, who packed on 40 pounds for the role, is superb here; full of spirit and down-home charm early on, he seems to slip thereafter into a sort of private agony that only those who have truly served their country can know. (A late sequence shot in an impenetrable sandstorm provides the most literal possible metaphor for his own personal fog of war.) Perhaps the film’s most humanizing touch is its willingness to show Kyle not just reacting but thinking, attempting to grasp ideas that have thus far eluded him, whether he’s spending time with veterans who have lost limbs and worse on the battlefield; coming to grips with the difference between him and his reluctant-Marine brother (Keir O’Donnell); or shrugging awkwardly when someone calls him a “hero,” as if the word were a particularly ill-fitting sweater.

While the circumstances of Kyle’s death add a note of tragic urgency to the film’s matter-of-fact examination of post-traumatic stress disorder, the moment itself is left offscreen, a decision that feels consistent with the scrupulous restraint that characterizes the production as a whole. The visual and editorial choices discreetly reinforce the clash between the hell of modern warfare (the color all but drained away from Stern’s images) and the purgatory of middle-class American life, accentuated by a sound mix that allows us to register the hard pop of every gunshot. While Eastwood’s musical compositions have sometimes been hit-or-miss, he’s never written a subtler score than the one here, providing faint, almost imperceptible accompaniment; in a film that encourages us to reflect as well as feel, it’s a choice that speaks volumes.

Film Review: 'American Sniper'

Reviewed at Warner Bros. Studios, Burbank, Calif., Nov. 11, 2014. (In AFI Fest Secret Screening.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 132 MIN.

Production

A Warner Bros. release and presentation, in association with Village Roadshow Pictures, Ratpac-Dune Entertainment, of a Mad Chance, 22nd & Indiana, Malpaso production. Produced by Clint Eastwood, Robert Lorenz, Andrew Lazar, Bradley Cooper, Peter Morgan. Executive producers, Tim Moore, Jason Hall, Sheroum Kim, Steven Mnuchin, Bruce Berman.

Crew

Directed by Clint Eastwood. Screenplay, Jason Hall, based on the book "American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History" by Chris Kyle with Scott McEwen, Jim DeFelice. Camera (color, Panavision widescreen, Arri Alexa digital), Tom Stern; editors, Joel Cox, Gary D. Roach; production designers, James J. Murakami, Charisse Cardenas; art directors, Dean Wolcott, Harry Otto; set decorator, Gary Fettis; costume designer, Deborah Hopper; sound (Dolby Digital/Datasat), Walt Martin; sound designer, Tom Ozanich; supervising sound editors, Alan Robert Murray, Bub Asman; re-recording mixers, John Reitz, Gregg Rudloff; special effects supervisor, Steven Riley; special effects coordinator, Brendon O'Dell; stunt coordinators, Jeff Habberstad, Trevor Habberstad; visual effects supervisor, Michael Owens; visual effects, MPC, Pacific Title & Art Studio, Sony Pictures Imageworks, Image Engine, Lola; assistant director, David M. Bernstein; second unit director, Robert Lorenz; second unit camera, Barry Idoine; casting, Geoffrey Miclat.

With

Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Luke Grimes, Jake McDorman, Cory Hardrict, Kevin Lacz, Navid Negahban, Keir O'Donnell, Cole Konis, Luke Sunshine, Mido Hamada, Sammy Sheik. (English, Arabic dialogue)

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  1. I was watching the trailer which really made me curious if he actually pulled the trigger when targeting that child, this was the detail which I was taking in consideration to watch the movie, and I did!

  2. All those hater of the American Snipers have never be in any kind of wars. It is so easy to bad mouth any person who went to wars and manage to return normal in their civilian life.

  3. Tim Meador says:

    Going to see it now. We all prefer peace but warriors like Kyle defeat those who would rather see us all dead.

  4. James Rogers Bush says:

    Left, Right, or Center, we are all Americans and have a right, under the First Amendment, to speak our piece. My ancestors settled in Texas in 1836. My great great grandfather was on the committee to name Bonham and Fannin County, Texas. Both mine and my wife’s ancestors owned slaves and fought for the South in the Civil War. My father was on the Bataan Death March and survived over three years in a Japanese prison camp. My wife’s grandfather was in the Meuse Argonne Offensive during WW1. Her father was part of the Red Ball Express during WW2. My stepson served in Iraq. I served during the Viet Nam War. Chris Kyle reflects an attitude that comes straight out of Texas. It’s an attitude that I consider to be twisted, or broken, if you will. Why do I feel this way? I feel this way because this attitude, which is so often bragged about by Texans as being a positive thing, a manly thing, a patriotic thing, is, in fact, a self-destructive thing. From the Alamo to Iraq, Texas has exulted in having an attitude of stubborn meanness. That meanness may have helped Texas to survive the harsh conditions of it’s birth, but now it only serves to retard Texas from moving forward with the rest of the country. Chris Kyle was raised with guns, the Bible, and an attitude that Texans are more patriotic and godly than the rest of the country, and certainly more godly than the people of Iraq. He went to Iraq with his gun, Bible, and this attitude, which enabled him to kill, without compunction, and with a deep animosity and resentment for the people, not just the enemy, of the country that we were supposed to liberate. In the end, he was broken by the war – a war that was wrong in the first place. In my opinion his wrong attitude and the wrong war that he was engaged in destroyed him, and may, ultimately, destroy all of us. When Chris Kyle was killed by a fellow veteran, with PTSD, whom he was trying to help, the very way that he tried to help is indicative of the flawed attitude that he carried with him to Iraq, brought home from Iraq, and took with him into that shooting range the day he was killed. Kyle thought that with the help of God and a gun, he could heal a veteran whose very illness was the result of guns. No one in their right mind would take a veteran suffering from PTSD into a shooting range. Chris Kyle was twisted when he left Texas with a cross tattooed on one arm and a sniper rifle carried under the other. He was twisted when he killed dozens, with malice, in Iraq. And he was twisted when he came home and took a broken veteran to a shooting range, thinking it would help. Chris Kyle’s story is a sad one, and it deserves to be told, but honestly, and not as if he were a hero to be admired or even as a wounded veteran to be sympathized with. Chris Kyle’s story should be told as a cautionary one – one that warns us what happens when a country invades another under false pretenses and then turns it’s young men into sociopathic killers to validate that invasion. The Iraq War was a terrible mistake, one which the whole world will be paying for, for quite some time. We have created a monster, and now that monster is coming home to roost; and now we must kill that monster in any way we can; but we should never idolize killing, or the men who do that killing for us. Instead we should do what needs to be done, with humility, knowing what damage will be done, and knowing that there is no glory in being a Chris Kyle.

    • Easy E says:

      You talk more about killing than most soldiers do. The ironic thing is the majority of soldiers who do come home with PTSD, do find solace in going to ranges. As being a veteran with PTSD I very much disagree with your response. You can list off all the history you want, but the reality is, you do not have PTSD, you do not understand PTSD, and you have no idea who or what Kyle stood for based off your comments about tattoos and guns. First off, he was dedicated to his country and willing to go where you and many others wouldnt. Not because it was right or wrong, but because he agreed with the ideal of freedom and fighting for the country that less than 1% actually understand. Sacrifice is a part of that life. It will alter you down to the very core, but for you to say a man that would willing put his life on the line and then you go and make assumptions about his attitude and about a problem you know nothing about. You had family in wars, thats great. if you werent there and you dont know anything about it, do sit all high and mighty talking about a monster, when the real monster is that you can not open you eyes to see the real problem. The rift that is created because men go to war and fight and civilians dont understand. It is his job to go and eliminate threats and protect his troops. So whether the movie depicts it that way or not, he was doing what he was trained to do and willing to lay down his life for you. I dont care if you disagree with the politics behind the war, but stand behind your soldiers, because your soldiers arent politicians, they are just like you or your brothers, men and women who volunteered when you didnt. Say take a second to appreciate his sacrifice, to see the actual intent of the movie and stop picking at personal issues with the film and realize it for the rift it is trying to fix. War is brutal and gory and not everyone can handle it, that doesnt make men monsters for going there and fighting it so you dont have to. Try to say thank you before critsizing a man that has done more with his life then anyone commenting on here has. Sad day that this is what the US has come to. We just try to point out everyone elses flaws.

      • John says:

        James, I am also a veteran and you sound discguntled. Wars are wars and wars take a toll, but in the end you need strong soldiers to fight and win these wars. I knew people who fought in the Pacific in WW2. Japanese soldiers at that time were an enemy with a fanatical sense of purpose and Americans had to go toe to toe with them without second guessing their actions if they were to survive and win.

        Kyle, he fought for his country and died trying to help others who fought fot this country and he should be honored for the hero that he was,and is with this excellent movie about him, which I did go see.

  5. Dawn Marie says:

    Excellent cinematic review – made this film a “must see” for us – thank you – your cinematic interpretation is very good…………..

  6. Melodie says:

    sounds great

  7. Jim says:

    I’ve read both of Chris Kyle’s books….anxiously waiting to see the movies..especially because I believe that Clint Eastwood will stay true to the story of this American Warrior.

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  9. H.M. says:

    It’s all well and good that Eastwood left off Kyle’s death because that frankly belongs on the Twilight Zone with it’s weird sense of moral eerie schadenfreude. You expect Serling to come out explaining the way Kyle brought his own death on by doing something that was the reverse of cool battlefield logic he displayed in war. I was reminded of the writer Michael Kelly’s death also being perversely ironic.

    • You really do have a hyper-inflated sense of your own relative position in this world. Please, feel free to go say that to the face of any of Kyle’s SEAL brothers. You’ll likely have a changed attitude afterwards.

  10. IT 2 IT says:

    HYPE unto HYPE unto HYPE.

    And LOOK around –in ANY direction!

    ASK yourself —-WHY??? has Korea era EASTWOOD and Hollywood
    are continuing to ‘mysteriously overlook’ some 5 decades of milestone anniversaries
    for the 21st century DEFINING———indeed, avant garde, —-KOREAN WAR?????

    TAKE HEED!

  11. Secret squirrel says:

    Chris Kyle was assassinated.

  12. feingarten says:

    wasn’t originally planning on seeing this but Eastwood is the still one of our finest storytellers. I’ll be there. The reference to Hurt Locker is apropos as is the comment made re:Renner’s performance.

    wouldn’t at be surprised if Cooper merits another nom or Eastwood either

  13. pmd says:

    Kyle was kind of a jerk and had some serious issues, believing he was on a crusade and claiming that he had yearned to kill women and children. Does the movie glorify him?

    • Michael Edwards says:

      Whoa, hold on a minute here!! Did you ever meet the man?? Who says he’s a jerk? You? By what accounts? I have actually met the man, about 3 months before his death. Spent quite some time with him! While very set in his ways, much like the rest of us, he was a warm, generous man, who reached out to give first before asking for himself. So before you just blurt out something that you obviously have no idea what your talking about, maybe do some research.

  14. Clint Eastwood got a winner in American Sniper. You don’t need a score card to tell who is good and who is bad.

  15. IT 2 IT says:

    WHY is EASTWOOD boring with recycled, reheated, rehashed,
    authorized ‘controversy’.

    WHY is Hoillywood continuing to ‘mysteriously overlook’ some
    5 decades of milestone anniversaries for the now 21st century DEFINING
    —————————————–KOREAN WAR?————————————-

    BETTER START DEMANDING THAT ANSWER AMERICA!

    YOUR VERY FUTURE NOW DEPENDS ON IT.

  16. Reg says:

    Sounds absolutely terrific. I can’t wait to see it.

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