Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Clint Eastwood
Stars: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Kyle Gallner, Keir O’Donnell, Jake McDorman, Luke Grimes, Sammy Sheik, Navid Negahban, Eric Close, Owain Yeoman.
In the late 70s and 80s, many filmmakers took an opportunity to revisit America’s involvement in Vietnam and used their fresh perspective to criticise the country’s involvement in the unpopular and bitterly divisive campaign. And now it seems that the unpopular war raging in Iraq and Afghanistan is providing similar fuel for filmmakers. The latest is American Sniper, from director Clint Eastwood, who in his early 80s is still one of the best and most prolific mainstream filmmakers working.
The central character here is Chris Kyle, a SEAL sniper who undertook four tours of duty in Iraq and amassed a total of 160 confirmed kills, making him America’s most deadly marksman. In Iraq he provided cover for the troops as they engaged in house to house searches for enemy rebels, and he used his skills to pick off insurgents before they could throw bombs or attack allied troops. In turn his deadly skills made him a target for a skilled Iraqi sniper. In one of his tours of duty, Kyle and his men were charged with trying to bring down a terrorist known as The Butcher for his propensity for torturing and killing informants and their families using a power drill.
This biopic looking at Kyle is based on his own book, which was more technical and forensic in nature. It has been adapted for the screen by Jason Hall (Spread, Paranoia, etc), who himself comes from a family with a military background, and it is this personal perspective that shapes some of the drama. He knows this world, and has an understanding of the toll combat takes, not only on the soldiers themselves but also on their families back home.
Hall has taken many of the key points of Kyle’s autobiography to shape the script. The film gives us some glimpses into Kyle’s early life, and shows how he learned to shoot and hunt animals at an early age and learned to defend his younger and weaker brother, all attributes that stood him in good stead when he enlisted in the army. He was a rodeo cowboy when he watched the Twin Towers come down on September 11, and in a fervour of patriotism he enlisted in the SEALs. He underwent a rigorous training program, and perfected his deadly skills before shipping out to Iraq.
Bradley Cooper (who has recently delivered great performances in dramas like American Hustle, etc) is almost unrecognisable here. The normally lean and angular Cooper has bulked up and stacked on the weight to play Kyle convincingly. He delivers a restrained performance that captures the complex character and his conflicted emotions. He also depicts Kyle as man uncomfortable with the hero status awarded him by his fellow soldiers and who internalises his emotions and keeps the horrors of the war inside rather than discussing them with a counsellor.
When Kyle returns home after his final tour is finished, he begins to work with psychologically and physically damaged veterans through the local VA, and he finds some satisfaction as well as redemption and rehabilitation from this work. But it is this work that also has tragic consequences.
This harrowing war drama captures the chaos and perils of fighting in a war against a determined enemy, who use IEDs and suicide bombers, and targets civilians. It looks at the psychological and physical toll that combat takes, and these themes are still disturbingly relevant, topical and timely. The battle scarred Kyle is similar to Jeremy Renner’s character in the Oscar winning drama The Hurt Locker; he feels much more alive when he is in the war zone alongside his colleagues, but feels frustrated and bored and even edgy while at home and confronted with the dull routine of domestic life. It’s no wonder he keeps going back.
But somewhat surprisingly, American Sniper is not the rousing pro-war drama that one might have expected given Eastwood’s cinematic history and reputation. Contrast this with John Wayne’s gung-ho, jingoistic The Green Berets from 1968. And while the anti war message comes across, director Eastwood tries to avoid exploring too deeply the murky politics of this unpopular war. He seems to only engage with the murky moral and political climate of the war in Iraq in superficial terms.
However he does effectively capture the futility of war and the high toll it takes. He is also better than most working directors at staging large scale action sequences, and the combat scenes here are visceral and tough, draining and at times quite intense and harrowing. They are also shot in a more classical fashion than the kinetic energetic style preferred by younger filmmakers.
Eastwood has shot much of the film in Morocco, and its harsh terrain and imposingly bleak landscape doubles for the broken, rubble strewn cities of Iraq. Working with his regular cinematographer Tom Stern he gives the film an uneasy and uncomfortable mood.
Eastwood also suffuses a couple of sequences with unbearable tension, such as the opening scene in which Kyle has to decide whether to shoot a young boy who is carrying a bomb towards a US convoy. Some of the sequences depicting Kyle’s relentless training with the SEALs are reminiscent of Eastwood’s earlier Heartbreak Ridge. It also recalls his other films like Flags Of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima, which took a more sympathetic view of men in combat and the pressures they dealt with.
However, Eastwood seems a little ill at ease and uncomfortable dealing with the more intimate and emotional moments while depicting Kyle’s home life and his tense, strained relationship with his wife Taya (Sienna Miller). These scenes often detract from the gripping drama of the war zone and the life or death situations facing Kyle.
Kyle himself is credited as one of the producers of the film, which was originally intended as a project for Steven Spielberg before he backed out, and he collaborated closely with Cooper in the early stages to ensure veracity and authenticity. There is a tragic postscript, added after production had finished, that adds a poignant note to the film, and provides Eastwood with one rare moment to indulge in a bit of flag waving gung-ho patriotism.