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American Sniper 

One soldier's struggle for normalcy tells a bigger story in American Sniper

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American Sniper
  • American Sniper

If movie-world think pieces are any indication, American Sniper is the latest fact-based movie that simply isn't going to be allowed to be a movie. We're apparently not allowed to talk about it without worrying about whether it smooths over the rough edges of its primary subject, Navy SEAL Chief Chris Kyle, or speculating on its politics because of what we know about director Clint Eastwood and his conversations with empty chairs. It's not possible for me to stress this enough: If you are looking for a review of the documentary that American Sniper isn't, I invite you to search elsewhere, good luck and godspeed.

None of which is to say that what is on the screen isn't occasionally frustrating, or disappointing, or simplistic. But it's also startlingly good at one particular thing: looking inside the head of a soldier who can't process his wartime experience because he doesn't know how to look inside his own head. And it's a fantastic showcase for Bradley Cooper playing the kind of character it's not always easy for an actor to capture.

American Sniper opens with Cooper's Chris Kyle on his first tour in Fallujah, perched on a rooftop protecting the Marines clearing buildings door to door. From the moment of his first life-or-death decision, the story flashes back—to his Texas childhood, his career as a rodeo cowboy, his eventual enlistment, and his courtship and marriage to his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller)—before returning to his experiences serving in Iraq. But between those tours, he finds himself unable to return to normalcy in his family life.

Plenty of American Sniper is spent on Chris' battlefield exploits and traumas, from the expertise as a marksman that earned him the nickname "The Legend" to the death of fellow soldiers he was unable to save. Eastwood brings tension to plenty of those life-or-death set pieces, including a harrowing section where an Iraqi informant for the U.S. troops faces a barbaric enforcer. Yet it's also hard to ignore that the film's perspective often turns it into a straightforward action movie unconcerned with moral complexity, especially when Chris' counterpart for the Iraqi insurgents—an Olympic marksman named Mustafa (Sammy Sheik)—becomes practically a James Bond supervillain in his seeming invincibility. Virtually all the time that American Sniper is on the field of battle, it feels indistinguishable from any patriotic, troop-supporting tale you could name.

But when Chris has to stare down the aftermath during quiet moments, it's an entirely different story. Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall struggle with how to incorporate Taya into Chris' unsettled world—sometimes finding the convincing terror of a phone call home that's interrupted by a sniper attack, sometimes making her the whiny wife who says things like, "It's not about them, it's about us," or, "Even when you're here, you're not here." Yet American Sniper is terrific at conveying Chris' inability to leave Iraq behind, whether it's his nervous reactions to sounds like a lawnmower starting, or his awkwardness knowing how to respond when he's greeted by a soldier whose life he saved. As a portrait of post-traumatic stress that never allows the end of the war to truly be the end of the war, it's remarkably potent.

And much of the credit for that portrait goes to Cooper, in a performance that's engrossing in its taciturn simplicity. As portrayed in American Sniper, Chris doesn't overthink his job of killing the people who threaten his comrades in arms, which both makes him very good at what he does and very bad at knowing how to live when he's no longer doing it. He's a God-fearing patriot, and neither Eastwood nor Cooper ever put that context in ironic quotation marks; they make Chris' lack of introspection both intriguing and heartbreaking.

Was the real Chris Kyle that same guy? Based on other journalistic accounts, perhaps not. Yet ultimately, that has little to do with either the successes or the failings of American Sniper as a piece of cinematic storytelling. After it plugs through the men-at-war business, it gets at something real about the fight still facing so many of America's soldiers once they've returned home. That feels far more significant than what it may or may not get right about one soldier.


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American Sniper
Rated R · 132 minutes · 2015
Official Site:
Director: Clint Eastwood
Producer: Clint Eastwood, Robert Lorenz, Andrew Lazar, Bradley Cooper, Peter Morgan, Tim Moore, Jason Hall, Sheroum Kim and Bruce Berman
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Jake McDorman, Luke Grimes, Navid Negahban, Keir O'Donnell, Max Charles, Kyle Gallner, Cory Hardrict, Sam Jaeger, Mido Hamada and Sammy Sheik
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What others are saying (11)

Colorado Springs Independent Men with guns American Sniper is complex, conflicted, and profoundly moving by Daniel Barnes 01/21/2015
Chicago Reader Bradley Cooper is number one with a bullet in American Sniper With American Sniper, Clint Eastwood tells the story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. by J.R. Jones 01/14/2015
Charleston City Paper Clint Eastwood focuses on the wrong parts of Chris Kyle's life in American Sniper Navy SEAL Chris Kyle was the most lethal sniper in American military history. by Dan Hudak 01/14/2015
8 more reviews...
Connect Savannah Review: American Sniper While director Clint Eastwood and scripter Jason Hall take some care in muddying the morality at play, they still err on the side of sainthood in painting their portrait of Chris Kyle. by Matt Brunson 01/13/2015
Inlander Coming Home One soldier's struggle for normalcy tells a bigger story in American Sniper by Scott Renshaw 01/14/2015
NUVO Review: American Sniper Clint Eastwood offers a powerful low-key portrait of a man who saved many lives by being very good at killing people. by Ed Johnson-Ott 01/15/2015
Indy Week Clint Eastwood's biopic of a deadly American Sniper downplays the unsavory details of Chris Kyle's life American Sniper opens in Triangle theaters on Friday. by Neil Morris 01/14/2015
Seven Days American Sniper by Rick Kisonak 01/14/2015
Memphis Flyer American Sniper Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper spin a myth for the War On Terror by Chris McCoy 01/30/2015
Portland Mercury The Terrorists Have Won Clint Eastwood's American Sniper shoots (and misses). by Wm. Steven Humphrey 01/14/2015

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