In Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, whenever Chris Kyle (played here by Bradley Cooper) stares down the scope of a sniper rifle, it always leaves you holding your breath for so many reasons. Whether it be questioning what it means to take a life, or knowing that split second hesitations will result in the fatalities of close allies and friends, and eventually how the weight of these burdens can carry long-term trauma to one’s state of mind. For that reason, it’s no understatement that American Sniper, the recent recipient of six Academy Award nominations, is one of the most intense and suspenseful movies of the year.
Chris Kyle is both a celebrated and controversial sniper, who racked up 160 confirmed kills while taking part in four tours to Iraq. He’s often referred to in this film as “The Legend”, respected by those who fight alongside him, and feared by those who oppose him, going so far as to place a high bounty on his head. However, not everything about Kyle is as open-shut as it appears. There’s been quite a stir around the internet in regards to his portrayal here, some claiming that he was nowhere near remorseful as he is played up to be, and how certain controversial events of his were glossed over, or softened.
I have no idea if this film paints him accurately, but the thing that needs to be understood is that accuracy doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing as quality. It’s an essential thing to grasp, but what should matter above all else is that the portrayal here is fascinating to watch, and that’s precisely the case. Kyle may be a noble patriot here, but his interpretation isn’t squeaky clean. In fact, he’s an incredibly flawed human here, usually painting his opponents as black-and-white villains and evil that he rarely shows any remorse for, acting prickly and impulsively, and due to all his time on the battlefield, feels emotionally distant to those close to him, and even succumbs to episodes of PTSD. On paper it’s one thing, but it needed an exceptional actor to bring the character and traits to life, which is exactly what we get from Bradley Cooper. Cooper carries himself with such an imposing presence, keeping most of his mental struggles internal, and is actually impressive in how most of his acting and intensity is more subtly conveyed through the very look in his eyes (oh god, those eyes). He chooses not to portray Kyle solely as a sinless defender, or as a cold-blooded killer, but instead walks a thin tightrope between these two sides, and successfully at that. It’s far from Cooper’s showiest performance to date, but it’s certainly among his best.
In fact, the rest of the film has a very fine balance between two sides of an extreme, establishing itself not as a pro-war film, or as an anti-war film. It’s both, and yet it’s neither. It acknowledges the effect of both ends of the spectrum, but wisely wishes to keep its focus centered on the characters, and keep the politics secondary. That said, it can’t avoid its drawbacks. Much of the time, it does tend to paint the Iraqi side as easy villains (though you could argue that it’s shown to us how Chris Kyle sees it), and some of its ploys get dangerously close to patriotism propaganda. However, that’s not enough to take much away from this movie.
Also, as I said earlier, it is a very suspenseful film. Eastwood still clearly has a knack for sequences to make us gasp and sweat, as evidenced by the numerous sniping sequences and shootouts, including one brief segment where Kyle sets his aim on a child with an RPG launcher that will likely leave you breathless. The sound work is just as essential to generating the intensity of the film, from the foreboding silence emphasized by the sounds of distant gunfire, and the heated gunfights that justify paying an IMAX ticket on their own.
I’d say go see it, but if it’s projected opening weekend is anything to go by, you probably already have.
**** / *****