Chris Kyle was a United States Navy SEAL. He was said to be the most lethal sniper in American history. Because a confirmed kill has to have a witness, out of a possible 255 kills, Kyle is recorded as having 160. It’s a staggering number. It’s also the subject of director Clint Eastwood’s new film American Sniper based on Kyle’s autobiography of the same name.
“You’ve got a gift,” Kyle’s proud father tells his son during a flashback after the young boy takes a perfect shot at a deer. “You’ll make a fine hunter one day.”
Our introduction to Kyle (a buffed Bradley Cooper) is when he’s crouched on a rooftop looking down at a woman and her boy who are walking through rubble towards a group of American soldiers gathered together, his rifle carefully aimed, his finger ready to pull if it needs to. From his vantage point, the SEAL instinctively knows something’s wrong. And he’s right. Through his telescope he spies the woman handing her boy a cumbersome looking, metallic object. It’s a grenade. But before the unbelievably tense introduction to Kyle’s world develops into something more, the film abruptly cuts away, taking us back to Kyle’s early days riding rodeo.
What follows is a sequence of events leading up to Kyle wanting to become a SEAL. “I’m not a redneck,” Kyle tells Taya (Sienna Miller with a convincing accent). “I’m from Texas.” Despite Taya’s reluctance to have anything to do with an “arrogant’ Navy SEAL – he even has a Don’t Mess with Texas sticker on his fridge – Kyle’s particular brand of Texas charm wins her over and they marry.
Like many Americans whose patriotism and the need to fight for their country grew into something much stronger by the shocking events of 9/11, Kyle is soon on his way overseas, ready to serve. The brief moment where we witness the TV reports of those live shots from New York’s twin towers remains as horrifying as they ever did, and always will. Then we’re back to that rooftop overseas and back to that moment when Kyle has to decide what he’s going to do. The woman with the grenade is in his sights. She hands the long, metallic tube to her young boy. The child then runs towards the American soldiers, weapon in hand, preparing to throw. In a split second, a decision is made. Kyle fires.
Cooper plays Kyle as a man full of inner conflict, the kind that develops from someone having witnessed and participated in events only those who have fought for their country can know. He can never fully relax, even when home with his wife. “There’s a war going on and I’m heading to the mall,” he declares to Taya behind the wheel of his truck. But Taya is naturally having her own problems. “I’m creating memories by myself,” she tells her husband referring to the amount of time he’s away. “I have no one to share them with.” Both actors deliver outstanding performances, but this is naturally Cooper’s film, and he’s terrific portraying an angst-ridden man of deep conviction whose story in prose may have been well received by its readers but whose life deserves to be explored on the larger and more encompassing canvas of the cinema screen.
However, there’s a tendency to be occasionally lost. With flashbacks and jumping to and from overseas, back to Texas, then back overseas again, times, dates and even locations become murky. You loose grip on where you’re supposed to be, and it’s this loss of perspective that gets in the way; it’s stops a good film from becoming what could have been a great one.
As a director, Clint Eastwood continues to have a remarkable career. At eight-five – yes, eighty-five – he still shuns modern styles and fashions, and more power to him. His deliberate, no-fuss style of movie-making continues to look measured and confidant, his widescreen images well framed and steady and his differing subjects, from the somber, introspective western Unforgiven, the emotional drama of Million Dollar Baby to the upbeat musical of Jersey Boys, are all attention-grabbing, even if the end result is not always as successful as the idea. With American Sniper, Eastwood incorporates all elements – action, humor, even melodrama – with the assuredness of a professional filmmaker who truly knows what he’s crafting. The promises of ‘71’s Play Misty for Me continue to manifest. He was always an imposing presence in front of the camera but despite a few missteps – The Dead Pool, City Heat and The Rookie spring to mind – he’s become a giant behind it.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 134 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)