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There are those who say that when a director or visual storyteller reaches a certain age that they should hang it up and call it a career, as has been said of late about such filmmakers as Michael Mann and George Lucas. Calling it quits at an advanced age is a sentiment that seems to gain more and more traction especially when a filmmaker puts out material that, to an audience, can seem out of step or unpleasant.
However, for cinematic legend Clint Eastwood, at age 84, he continues to prove that he can still offer up strong, topical, and complex films as is the case here. Eastwood’s film about the life of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle is a riveting character study that manages to examine the effects of war not only on the soldiers who fight these wars, but also to a lesser extent, on the families who support them.
Eastwood’s political position as a Republican is well-known and could color some audience members’ perspective on this picture as being pro-Republican or a pro-war piece. However, one should consider looking more closely at what is being presented and the manner in which it is presented before firmly labeling this picture as a Republican one. This is not a film made from the lens of any political party. Rather, this is a film about a sniper, told from a sniper’s lens both figuratively speaking and quite literally as this movie is based on the autobiography written by Kyle.
At the start, we are dropped right in the thick of a military operation, just before Kyle takes his first shot in the field. The high tension sequence we saw in the trailers is laid out, establishing the moment, the place and the mindset that this man is in. He is preparing to become a machine and the manner in which Eastwood guides us into the scene is no less masterful than anything he is capable of. Bradley Cooper does an amazing job of channeling the spirit and demeanor of a SEAL under these circumstances. This is only the beginning though, as more is revealed about Kyle as a man through the tremendous work that Cooper brings to the table.
Mid-opening scene, we are given a brief build up that plants the seeds of who Chris Kyle is, from child to cowboy to sniper school bound, only to be brought back to the opening sequence, which now carries more gravitas than it already did (and it carried a fair amount) and from here, the film only gets heavier.
Its truest, most believable and strongest moments are during Kyle’s four tours of duty, each one becoming more taxing both for him and presumably, for the audience as well. We wonder when he will be done with all the fighting and spend time with his family. Here, as well as in some of the more intimate scenes depicting the results of so much time away at war, is where Cooper stands out the most. The subtle nuances he shows both during firefights or during a conversation with his wife, played by Sienna Miller, is evident that Cooper knows what he’s doing.
On the other hand, some scenes do feel forced and make the film as a whole feel uneven. Some of the early scenes specifically, which depict Kyle’s childhood and family dynamics come off a bit clunky and are not helped by inconsistent performances. Some of the writing in scenes where Kyle and his wife Taya have conversations felt stale and flat, resulting in scenes that were unbelievable and corny at times calling to mind the feeling of a romantic drama. Thankfully, these moments only occurred in snippets. This is not to say that there were not any good moments of acting between Cooper and Miller during the more quiet moments of the movie because there were, just not very consistent. While it probably is not fair to say that all of those scenes should be removed in full, the majority of those scenes and much of one scene at the end, seem to only serve as fluff; adding little to Chris Kyle the man.
The combat sequences detailing Kyle’s rise as a living legend were top-notch. There is a grittiness to how these sequences were choreographed, which felt documentary style. These were scenes where the movie did not feel like a movie. They are pulse-pounding and uncomfortable moments where one is on edge throughout, even during the silent spaces. Eastwood has a consistent, steady hand here and like Kyle, shoots straight and sharp. He does not shy away from some of the more graphic elements, leaving little to the imagination of what occurs on the battlefield. War is a messy business internally and externally and Eastwood, who is no stranger to films like this, honors the full truth of such an experience.
If you are wondering what all the buzz is about here, definitely do yourself a favor and check American Sniper out. It is good, and a satisfying tribute, even if it is unbalanced at times. You might not be disappointed. Most of all though, you might come away with thinking about US involvement in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars a bit differently having experienced this story from the eyes of a son, a brother, a soldier, husband and a father.