In more than 40 years of directing, Clint Eastwood has become a master storyteller.
That is overwhelmingly evident in the first half-hour of “American Sniper,” Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall’s adaptation of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle’s memoir about his experiences as the most deadly sniper (160 confirmed kills) in U.S. military history.
They waste no time in plunging us into the action: A street in Iraq. American soldiers searching door-to-door. Watching from above is Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), new to the war and positioned on a rooftop.
Suddenly Chris spots movement: An Iraqi mother and her young son are approaching. The mother produces a rocket-propelled grenade from her clothing and gives it to her son, who rushes toward the Americans.
In seconds Chris must decide if his first kill will be a child.
From that hair-raising intro, the film jerks us back to Chris’ childhood: reared as a hunter (and possible proto-survivalist) by his father, a misspent youth as a rodeo rider, the decision to enlist in the best military unit in the world, the SEALs.
We see him in sniper training. We also witness a witty display of barroom banter with Taya (Sienna Miller), who dismisses SEALs as ego-fueled macho men but goes for Chris in a big way. He’s funny, he’s handsome, he’s sincere in his patriotism, he’s got that charming Texas drawl. Plus, on their first date he holds back her hair while she’s throwing up.
Several years in Chris’ life are thus established in just a few minutes and with virtually no exposition. This is storytelling at its best, with the images doing the talking and the dialogue providing color and personality.
Then we’re back on that rooftop peering through Chris’ gun sights at the little boy with the bomb.
“American Sniper” is remarkable for a couple of reasons. First because it is virtually a one-man show. No other character, not even Miller as the Missus (and she’s terrific), establishes such an anchoring presence as does Cooper. He’s in virtually every scene, the one constant throughout the film.
Cooper makes it look easy. In this Oscar-worthy performance he completely inhabits Chris Kyle, nailing the personality and attitude of a career warrior but softening that formidable surface with sly humor and genuine friendliness.
But “American Sniper” is also a stealth anti-war picture. The memoir was matter-of-fact, not big on introspection. The film, though, sneakily undermines the warrior mentality in the same way that Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” forced us to reconsider the casual violence of his early Westerns.
There’s some terrific action and suspense in the film. Chris faces the danger with a shrug.
But between his tours, when he’s stateside dealing with a growing family, the real cost of combat becomes apparent. Though he will not admit it, it becomes all too clear to Taya that her husband feels at home only in a war zone, that the brotherhood of warriors means far more to him than the comforts of domesticity.
To a civilian it’s obvious that taking more than 100 human lives would scar one’s conscience and emotional health. For a warrior like Chris, admitting such a thing would render him incapable of doing his job. Small wonder that he develops a case of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“American Sniper” does the near impossible, celebrating the warrior spirit while refusing to look away from the chaos it generates. It will leave you with your pulse racing, and your heart aching.
Read more of Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.
Rated R | Time: 2:12
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT (SPOILER ALERT)
In the film, as in the memoir, after the war, Navy SEAL Chris Kyle became a mentor to other physically and emotionally scarred veterans. That’s where the movie ends.
In a postscript we’re told that in February 2013 Kyle was shot to death by a troubled vet he was trying to help. That man’s murder trial is expected to begin within weeks.
“The way it went down was so wrong,” his widow, Taya Kyle, told the Los Angeles Times. “And yet on some level Chris died as he lived: serving.”