Film Review: American Sniper

True-life account of sniper Chris Kyle's four tours of duty in Iraq is a powerful meditation on the effects of war.
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This matter-of-fact, no-frills life of Chris Kyle marks a return to form for director Clint Eastwood. At its start a straightforward war movie, American Sniper becomes in Eastwood's hands something far more ambivalent and troubling. An outstanding performance by Bradley Cooper anchors what is one the year's best movies.

Jason Hall's script opens with Kyle (Cooper) stationed on a rooftop in Iraq, his hand on the trigger of his rifle as he decides whether or not to kill a youth on the street below. Flashbacks show Kyle growing up in Texas. Raised by a demanding father, he pursues a fitful career as a rodeo cowboy before enlisting after the 9/11 attacks. During training as a Navy SEAL, he woos the reluctant Taya (Sienna Miller), marrying her just as he is sent to Iraq.

Eastwood films these early scenes in a quick, efficient style. Kyle and his fellow soldiers adopt macho postures, jokes and insults masking doubts and fears. The initial Iraq scenes in American Sniper look familiar: soldiers on patrol through dusty, sunbaked streets, every person they meet a potential jihadist. Stationed on rooftops with his sniper rifle, Kyle has seconds to determine who will live and who will die.

The goals for Kyle and his fellow soldiers are clear-cut at first: defeat major terror suspect al-Zarqawi by capturing his enforcer, known as the Butcher. But the Iraqis have their own sniper, Mustafa (Sammy Sheik). They've also placed a bounty on Kyle.

Kyle's tour ends just as he is closing in on the Butcher. Stateside, he has trouble adjusting to domestic life. The script captures Kyle's sense of obligation and guilt, his determination to finish his job. It also gives Taya some pointed dialogue that is a bit too blunt.

Kyle ended up serving four tours in Iraq, and Eastwood raises the stakes in each one of them. When Kyle joins street patrols, we suddenly see fighting in close-up, vivid terms. No longer dispatching suspects through telescopic sights, he is now fighting them in hallways and rooms. They become real people, parents, children, and in the case of Mustafa an alter ego to Kyle himself.

Eastwood makes it clear that these Iraqis are fighting against an inscrutable, capricious occupying force. Life and death are decided by luck, superstition, faith, whatever the soldiers believe guards them. Nicknamed "the Legend" for his kills, Kyle assumes responsibility for his soldiers, an impossible task.

Increasingly ill at ease at home, Kyle has clearly paid a terrible price for every one of his hits. Even his motives change. At first he fought to avenge 9/11, then to capture Zarqawi. By his last tour he is operating out of anger and revenge, at one point instigating a firefight that almost leads to his death.

Eastwood and his longtime cinematographer Tom Stern stage the combat scenes with an expertise born of years of collaboration. (They also show how the fighting changes over the years, with drones becoming important weapons.) But the shootouts and explosions don't provide viewers with a sense of catharsis. As he did when he undermined western conventions in Unforgiven, Eastwood here questions everything we expect in a war movie.

He may have been the "best" sniper in American history, but Kyle's war made him a broken man. American Sniper could be saying that his experiences mirror our country's efforts in the Iraq war. Or not—this is a deeply ambivalent movie that refuses to provide easy answers.

Cooper famously gained 40 pounds to play this part, but his real achievement is finding the inner turmoil in Kyle's character. He manages a careful balancing act between revealing too much and hiding behind actorly tricks, abandoning his ego in the process.

American Sniper has a deeply upsetting ending that Eastwood handles without preaching or sentiment. If it does nothing else, the movie shows viewers how powerful and effective the war machine has become.
 
Far more complex and troubling than The Hurt Locker, American Sniper is still liable to be misjudged by critics who refuse to look beyond surface details. Those willing to meet its challenges will find a remarkable work from one of the industry's best, most accomplished filmmakers.

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