American Sniper (****1/2): Bleeds carefully with Eastwood’s heart

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American Sniper – 2014

Director Clint Eastwood
Starring Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Max Charles, Luke Grimes, Kyle Gallner, Sam Jaeger, Jake McDorman, Cory Hardrict, Navid Negahban
Screenplay Jason Hall based on the book by Chris Kyle, Scott McEwen, Jim DeFelice

When looking into the game plan of documenting a martyr, it’s not easy to present the subject as a whole person, flaws and all. One of the best and most brutally honest filmmakers of the last 25 years, Gregory Nava, was undone by this concept when he made the film Selena. What is even harder, though, is for those affected by the sacrifice made by such people to evaluate the life of the deceased. We all want to remember the good and gloss over that which does not fit the narrative our hearts need to present.

Chris Kyle’s journey into the heart of America came through his accuracy in long distance shooting in the Cheney/Bush Iraq war. Regardless of one’s thoughts on the premise for fighting in that war, everyone should be able to recognize that someone so dedicated to doing their job so selflessly is a good thing. Soldiers need to soldier on. They need to “Boo Yeah!” while the rest of us stay at home, work and pay taxes.

The best thing about Clint Eastwood’s style as a director is that he has a tendency to lean away from sentimentality. There are no long, lingering shots and kids asking inane questions. The emotions are immediate, real, and not dwelt upon. This is covered most presciently in the conclusion of his first kills: a mother and child trying to throw an explosive towards oncoming American troops. The tactic of using children as a shield is nothing new to jihadist strategy. Eastwood and Cooper (as Kyle) work through the complexities with a simple conversation.  Then they forge ahead.

Cooper’s performance is subtle to the point of inflexibility. The advertising campaign for the film wisely concentrates on the few times that he shows the verge of breaking down. The film shows him closer to the reality of his existence, but maybe not completely. Anyone that good at what he does might have a tendency to mythologize his gift.

Eastwood allows this myth through action in the film, at times. He says and does the right thing at every turn. The weirdest segment of the story is when he decides to stop sniping and then go door to door with the other troops. Within minutes he’s teaching those guys some “tips” to help keep them “above ground.” I don’t know if this happened in real life, but if it seems to me that the any sensible commander would have told Kyle to get back to his post and do what he trained to do.

Much of the film is spent covering conversations between Kyle and his wife, Taya (Miller). This is the main source for contention within Kyle’s life as he attempts to reconcile his wish to pursue his duty to the country and that to his family. There is an effective scene where she’s on the line with him discussing the sex of their child in the womb and the soldier driving his Humvee is killed, starting off a massive firefight that she has to witness without being able to see or know what has happened to her husband.

The middle segment of the film concentrates on his second and third tour of duty. The focus of Kyle and his team to catch up to “The Butcher” and his Syrian sniper, Mustafa. Everything feels more intense and cracks start to show on his platoon mates’ veneer. Eastwood turns up the tension slowly, and then cinches down the pressure cooker. As his legend grows, Kyle exhibits some uncertainty with the prestige. There is still much to do.

Word around the campfire is that in these places Eastwood chose to reign back a bit on the mythos presented in the book. Reining back on the gusto and adding a few more “Yes Sir” and “Yes Ma’am” salutations don’t hurt.

The movie plays out with Cooper’s Kyle being increasingly divided by a debate on where his obligations are. He feels the pull to avenge losses in country, but when he returns stateside he’s reminded tearfully that his children don’t know him as a father and his wife would love for him to see them grow. Eastwood carefully lays the groundwork for this internal struggle with a speech given to Chris by his father years earlier. What kind of man does he need to be?

The feeling of respect exhibited with Eastwood’s lens is authentic, but it is limited to the subject. Anyone who was there could identify with the sparse images presented. There is no doubt the monotony mixed with carnage is something hard to comprehend if you aren’t there.

To understand the depth of Cooper’s performance, one must look beyond his somber expression and look in his eyes. The moment the little boy picks up the rocket launcher, to his exhale at the conclusion of that scene. It’s not the best performance of the year, but it is definitely worthy of a nomination.

It is easy to appreciate the depth of passion for Eastwood, Kyle and those who appreciate both of their work to the American story. America is a pretty damn cool place, filled with those who are willing to work to protect it and keep it that way. This work is a righteous and cautious celebration of the American soldier. Just don’t wait too long for them to pop open a bottle of champagne.  Or smile, for that matter.

(****1/2 out of *****)

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