Clint Eastwood’s biographical study of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle – a sniper credited with over 160 confirmed kills, the most in U.S. military history – will likely be remembered as the “Saving Private Ryan” of the Iraq War. This will undoubtedly seem high praise for a film which just opened in wide release: “American Sniper,” however, not only offers an exceptional character study, but brilliantly captures the conflicted cultural ethos surrounding a war to which most Americans paid less and less attention as time dragged on.
The movie traces Kyle’s journey through four tours of duty in Iraq, juxtaposing visceral battle sequences with snapshots from his turbulent relationship with his wife (Sienna Miller) and children. Bradley Cooper, in the central role, displays a previously undemonstrated acting range. Gone is the suave grifter of “Limitless” and the manic outpatient of “Silver Linings Playbook: Cooper’s Kyle is every inch the stoic SEAL, driven by a black-and-white moral code and an iron personal will. And much as I may fume over Jake Gyllenhaal’s Academy snub or admire Benedict Cumberbatch’s recent turn as Alan Turing, Cooper deserves the Oscar win for the sheer dramatic gravitas he brings to a complex figure.
This film is not, as some critics have charged, an uncritical look at its subject. It is suggested – though never directly voiced – that Kyle suffers from an unhealthy affection for the battlefield, one which goes beyond a sense of patriotic duty to a kind of self-realization through warfare. In so doing, “American Sniper” lapses neither into crass jingoism nor “Full Metal Jacket”-style nihilism, but rather provides a trans-political look at the human beings placed into a conflict not originally of their devising.
But if the movie probes the darker corners of Kyle’s character, it is an equally stark indictment of a society that is fundamentally dissociated from its warriors. Gone is the sense of public participation which characterized past conflicts: Kyle and his comrades are sent on long tours of duty (characterized by eruptions of sudden violence from a hostile local populace), shunted into underfunded VA hospitals when injured, and ultimately expected to readily re-assimilate into a comparatively disengaged society. The question Eastfield’s film never really answers is whether the norms of enemy dehumanization required for effective battle are reconcilable with contemporary cultural standards…and if not, whether such re-assimilation is even possible. When the patriotic slogans are said and done, “American Sniper” asks its audience, are you – and your society – truly prepared to reengage those you sent to fight on your behalf, for a cause you believed was just?
And that is a question no film director will ever be able to answer, because its answer rests with the American people.
The film is combat-heavy, and more time could perhaps be allocated toward the tortures of Kyle’s readjustment and reintegration. That said, “American Sniper” contains some of the best film editing I’ve ever seen: the battle scenes are breathtakingly kinetic and superbly paced, topping both “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Act of Valor” in sheer intensity. The climactic battle sequence – which unfolds during a raging sandstorm – is a nail-biting tour de force, utterly engrossing in its fiercely violent desperation.
As one might expect, this is not an easy movie to watch. Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of dark things unfold onscreen, but few compare to the horrors “American Sniper” holds up as examples of the evil that Kyle and his companions face. Yet anything short of brutal honesty would be a deep disservice to the film’s haunting takeaway: at its heart, “American Sniper” is a story of soldiers who face things we cannot imagine, only to return to a public that cannot comprehend.
A ruthlessly wrenching, thought-provoking depiction of modern warfare and its intersection with culture, successfully anchored by an exceptional Bradley Cooper performance.