2010s, 3.5/4, Clint Eastwood, Drama, Review, War

American Sniper

#8 in my ranking of Clint Eastwood’s films.

This might be the most stylistically atypical film Clint Eastwood made in his entire filmography. It’s a cross between a combat film and a character piece, and the combat part is filmed with surprising energy by Eastwood. I mean, he obviously didn’t have the camera in his hands running around amidst the gunfire and explosions because of his age, but it’s the sort of thing that he hadn’t really done before. This is one of the few times where Eastwood seems to have tried to be something of a chameleon in his filming style rather than just filming whatever script was in front of him the same way that he filmed everything else. Still, despite that stylistic footnote, there’s so much more than just well-filmed action. Underneath, there’s a surprisingly touching story of the life of a combat veteran and the effects of PTSD.

Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) decides to join up with the Navy Seals at age 30 when the American embassy in Kenya is bombed in 1998. Despite his age, he excels in the notoriously tough training and begins training at their sniper school. He meets Taya (Sienna Miller), and the two hit it off, marrying just after 9/11 and right before he’s off to fight in Iraq. It’s in Iraq where Kyle becomes the deadliest sniper in American history, racking up over 160 kills over the course of four tours. He’s a terrifying presence on the battlefield, and he draws the attention of Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), a Syrian sniper in Iraq that the two end up in a duel over the course of Kyle’s four tours. Now, if there’s a part of this film that feels wrong, it’s Mustafa and the duel.

Mustafa isn’t a character. He’s just an antagonist that, if you look really closely, ends up acting as some kind of mirror to Kyle. He doesn’t have a line of dialogue, and he exists only as an enemy combatant, though he does have one very quick moment near the end where we see him with a wife and child, implying something about him beyond his skills with a rifle. However, that’s it. Everything about him feels manufactured in a way that the rest of the film does not. Mustafa feels like a movie creation whereas the rest of the film feels grounded in the reality of war and the lives of veterans so that they clash. It’s all a buildup to Kyle’s famous shot that he made over a mile, but it’s a fake version of it. I’m not one to hold a film to the history behind it, but the real story actually feels more dramatic than the one they came up with which feels kind of fake from this invented duel with another sniper. It’s an unfortunate need on the part of Hollywood to sexy up a story that didn’t really need it.

The degradation of a man over four tours in combat, where he is constantly on edge, laying in the same spot for hours and peering out of a scope where he has to make impossible moral decisions in an instant, decisions that will lead to death one way or another, is steady and weighs down on him, despite his reserved nature. He doesn’t want to talk to anyone about what’s going on inside his head, and that includes Taya. When he returns home for leave or after his duty is done, he increasingly becomes more distant to the point where he barely interacts with his two children, a situation that makes Taya more desperate, especially when combined with the stress she feels while he’s away.

What I think gives the film its magic is what the film does in its final minutes, when Kyle decides that his time in combat is finally over. His reintegration into civilian life is a tough one because he keeps up his experiences and emotions bottled up. He’s not going to cry his way through a session with a therapist, it’s just not who he is, but if he can find an outlet he may find some peace. And that’s exactly what he finds when he decides to help those men wounded in the war at the VA. The scenes as Kyle gets to know the guys, take them out to shoot in the wilderness, and just feel like himself again are where all of the surprisingly subtle emotional moments the film has had leading up to it pays off. He’s had small conversations with fellow soldiers, especially his friend Marc Lee (Luke Grimes), about what the danger of combat is doing to them mentally, conversations that Kyle resists, often returning to the most basic of talking points about the necessity of war in order to offer justification. The larger conflict is less important to him than his boys on the ground and trying to keep them safe. It’s all he needs, and he’s going to power through all of the horrors he witnesses, including gruesome murders he can’t prevent by people like The Butcher (Mido Hamada), in order to accomplish what he needs to accomplish.

When he’s back home and there’s no longer an enemy to gun down with his rifle, there are still boys to save, though. And that’s really where the film lives and breathes, giving a renewed sense of life to everything that came before it, elevating it to something special.

If it weren’t for the Mustafa character, I’d place this near the top of Clint Eastwood’s body of work. Other than that, though, this is a really special film. It’s a combat film that feels dangerous. It’s a character piece that is quite touching even when its main character doesn’t say much. It is anchored by a wonderfully subtle performance by Bradley Cooper who embodies this titan of a man with quiet dignity, and he has a supporting cast around him that really helps along the way. Sienna Miller is the worried wife at home, and she has at least a couple of scenes that allow her to shine, in particular.

This is the beginning of a tryptic of films Eastwood made about real-life heroes, continuing with Sully and ending with The 15:17 to Paris, and it’s the best of the three. Combining a certain Hollywood heightened reality (to somewhat varying effect) with a much more grounded emotional realism that anchors everything, American Sniper is a late gem from Eastwood’s career.

Rating: 3.5/4

3 thoughts on “American Sniper”

  1. I have reservations too that keeps me from listing this as one of Clint’s best. But first, I do appreciate Clint telling stories that the rest of Hollywood just refused to tell. Clint was ok telling stories about American heroes and about heroism in general. In a very big way, he was the last holdout, the last link to the old Hollywood which would make movies like The Green Berets, A Bridge Too Far and others.

    That said, this one hits a little too close to home for me to overlook the downside of Hollywood grabbing ahold of a real man and his real story. I can’t say that I was part of Chris Kyle’s circle, far from it, but we bumped up against the same online gun forums and milblogs. I was an admirer of him well before the movie and even before his autobiography came out. Just telling his story, straight, would have been a better tale. As you say, Mustafa is one part of the story that got ‘Hollywood-ed up’, another is his supposed PTSD. I gotta tell ya, Chris never suffered from PTSD, not that I ever heard or read. He was grounded and pretty much at peace with what he did in the line of duty, without the torment other vets seem to suffer.
    Then there’s the tragic ending to his life, getting murdered by a shit stain Kyle was trying to help. And the aftermath, of Jesse Ventura suing his widow, it all is in my head and makes it hard to review the movie as a movie.

    I’ll give credit to Bradley Cooper, who honestly does a great job. The guy took the role seriously and outperforms. He’s not Chris but he’s a good imitation.

    I think that’s all. It’s a fine movie overall and I appreciate what it was trying to do.

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    1. As the subplot with Mustafa was coming to its conclusion, I was thinking of some dialogue early in the film about how complicated long shots are, something that the film itself introduced (and I knew about previously), and watched as the shot was just straight-forward Hollywood, get the guy in the sights, sort of stuff. It was really disappointing the way it just embraced manufactured tension and easy to read visuals over the kind of complexity of real life obstacles.

      Still, it’s admirable, and I really feel like it’s the ending that gives the film its power. His finding a way to protect those at home is rather wonderful.

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