Based on the best-selling autobiography of the same name, Clint Eastwood’s new film American Sniper is the gripping story of Chris Kyle, the “Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History”.
Starring Bradley Cooper in the lead role, the film avoid the typical “war movie” plot twists or convolution, endeavouring instead to focus on a man who spent much of his adult life seeing life through sniper optics – both when he was at war and when he came home. It’s a story of someone who wasn’t just on a battle to physically return home to his family, but mentally too.
The success of this in the film, as much as Eastwood’s typically sound direction will have allowed it, rested on the shoulders of a very bulked up Bradley Cooper – who gained close to 20 kilograms for the role. And he delivers an entrancing performance from start to finish. You’d hope so, too – Cooper was attached to the film back in 2012, before Eastwood was attached, and serves as Producer. Sienna Miller stars as Kyle’s wife, Taya Renae Kyle, and helps bring humanity back to Kyle in the film’s later scenes – though as with most War films she’s relegated to portray the sad, lonely wife for much of the film. Such is part and parcel of this sort of thing. Still, she delivers the role well.
The scene you’ve probably watched from the trailer – where Cooper has to make the decision whether or not to kill a child – is certainly one of its most gripping moments. Though they come few and far between. Much as there would have been a lot of repetition in Kyle’s life, we experience that in the film. A mission to kill a rival sniper serves a minor overarching story, which left me wanting to know more about that sniper’s life (and I’m told in an earlier version of the script, this was considered). At times, it seems that Kyle is the least interesting character in this story. I imagine that’s intentional though – this guy, while an excellent shot, wasn’t anything special. That while he may have been treated like a hero, there are people risking their lives on both sides of the war for their beliefs, their God and their family. And he, just like most, came back a different person.
Much like Kyle’s life, this film isn’t perfect. Eastwood’s focus on the more brutal (and repetitious) moments of Kyle’s service makes the film, at times, an arduous task. And with a lead character that many of us in Australia may find it hard to empathise with, at times you’re wondering why his story is being told at all. But by its emotional end, you are taken with Kyle’s battle to return to his family – in body and mind – following his four tours.
Somehow, much as he achieved with Gran Turino, amongst a character we struggle to empathise with – probably equally racist to some extent – we find a heart to the film, and in the film’s climactic action sequence, when he says to his wife “I’m ready to come home now” over the phone (which may have been a cheap narrative technique, but we’ll let it pass – I haven’t read the autobiography to know the original account), it is ultimately a powerful moment. And the scene is war cinema at its best.
American Sniper isn’t the best war film ever made – it isn’t even Eastwood’s best war film – but I feel it does justice to the man’s story, which is all Cooper set out to achieve. And he delivers an excellent performance, one filled with depth, intensity and the same desire to get the job done as it seems Kyle had in his own life.
Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
American Sniper is released in Australian cinemas on January 22nd with preview screenings this weekend.