American Sniper an Important, Harrowing Account of Modern Warfare's Toll
- Jeffrey Huston Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- 2015 15 Jan
DVD Release Date: May 19, 2015
Theatrical Release Date: December 25, 2014 in NYC/LA/Dallas; wide January 16, 2015
Rating: R (for strong and disturbing war violence, strong language throughout, and some sexual references)
Genre: War Drama
Run Time: 132 min
Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller
Clint Eastwood's directorial track record has been lackluster for the better part of a decade now, with his recent adaptation of the Jersey Boys musical proving a dull exclamation point. The subject matter of American Sniper – the true-life story of Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper of the U.S. Armed Forces during the Iraq War – deserves much better.
Thankfully, and with supreme power, Eastwood gives Kyle's story everything it deserves and more. Depicted with traumatic immediacy (mental even more so than physical, although plenty of both) and without stale memorialized flag-waving, we're left with not just a deep appreciation for Kyle but also a towering weight of responsibility for our veterans that can't be easily dismissed. Immersing us into the intense stakes and psychological burden of Kyle's life, Eastwood gives us a harrowing account of modern warfare, its toll on those who fight it, and on those who love them – that all ends with an absolute gut-punch.
American Sniper is Chris Kyle's account (based on his autobiography) of being the most prolific marksman of the Iraq conflict, with 160 confirmed kills and 255 probable over four tours, plus a $180,000 bounty on his head placed by the enemy. Yes it's another "War is Hell" movie, but from a point of view we've not seen before. Elements, scenarios, and themes both at home and in combat feel familiar, yet seeing them through this specific lens makes them more direct, nerve-wracking, even new.
And while this story is told on a broad canvas, Chris (Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook) and his wife Taya (Sienna Miller, who's having a banner year between this and Foxcatcher) are the focus throughout. Other characters remain largely on the periphery, strictly there to help flesh out Chris's experience, and only become more intimate when it serves that purpose. After the first act establishes Chris's conservative childhood, it then jumps to his carousing young adult rodeo life and culminates in his pre-9/11 Navy SEAL training and marriage to Taya. Then post-9/11, the plot structure flows back and forth between Chris's four tours and his increasingly troubled stays at home in-between.
Eastwood's late-career directorial tone has been plaintive and lyrical. By contrast, American Sniper is visceral. Combat scenes are exceedingly stressful, even as the whole narrative proves the intimate portrait we'd expect. It's as if Clint took the primal foundation of The Hurt Locker and then, through Chris Kyle's story, made it existential. His combat scenes are effectively straightforward; simple yet kinetic. This classic approach – including a final battle sequence that truly captures "being in the thick of the soup" – has more clarity than many Saving Private Ryan-like stylistic rip-offs that try way too hard and end up being confusing.
The stateside visits then broaden our understanding and empathy. Here, Taya is elevated to a fully-fledged character beyond the weeping wife. We see in specific detail (and a soul-wrenching performance by Miller) the toll Taya bears; we see her story too. In addition, these breaks at home help illuminate just how much combat has warped Chris's whole psychology. As the tours progress, his mental state flips, with a desensitized calm in war zones but a jumpy and flinching anxiety back home.
American Sniper takes a sympathetic view of the military without being blindly pro-war. The fact that it's not overtly anti-war will no doubt result in some knee-jerk cries of jingoism (especially given Eastwood's outspoken conservatism), but in truth what we have here is a film that’s respectful, honest, and complicated. U.S. soldiers bully local Iraqi innocents and commandeer homes with strategic advantage, but all in the context of an enemy that uses homes and mosques as military outposts, and women and children for suicide bombers. It shows the U.S. Military not always doing things perfectly while placed in terribly imperfect situations.
All of this plays into the psychology of a sniper, someone who's asked to make the first and toughest calls of a brewing combat environment. Is a particular citizen on a cell phone a threat? Will that child fire that grenade launcher? Do you take out a key target in the brief moment you have if in doing so you'll draw attention to your troop's presence too soon? Then back at the base, every split-second gut call you make is nitpicked and second-guessed by military desk jockeys.
It's an impossible burden to carry (compounded when the Kyles become parents). Each decision is a torturous mind game. Those burdens accumulate over time and start messing with one's mind and soul. Chris builds mental walls to block the pressure, only to see those walls eventually crack and crumble. Even with the moral certainty of every shot he's taken, there's the uncertainty of every one he hasn't that cost American lives.
It's a debilitating psychological toll that Cooper captures with subtle progression. His career has been marked by overly self-aware turns that have mimicked the traits and ticks of his Method Acting heroes, but this is the first time Cooper's not trying to prove he's the next De Niro. Reverently, Cooper builds Chris Kyle's psychosomatic deterioration not by "acting" (as he might have done in the past), but by truly embodying it. His emotions and reactions are spontaneous rather than calculated, especially in the most fragile moments.
The extended epilogue provides the film's most important takeaway: the crisis of veterans afflicted with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Seeing Chris back home for good, and with other veterans, proves a sobering reminder that while they've left the war it hasn't left them. Not only have these men earned our support but they require it. And perhaps the best kind we can provide is to help them cultivate safe environments in which they can be there for each other.
From The Hurt Locker to Zero Dark Thirty (among others), we've seen several thought-provoking looks at the War on Terror and our post-9/11 world. But American Sniper may be the one that ends up resonating the most over time, not only because it aggregates the issues from so many of those other films but also because of the human story it so vigorously captures. American Sniper should be a film we can't shake – and that's exactly the film Eastwood's given us.
CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):
- Drugs/Alcohol: Alcohol consumed in bars; beer, liquor shots, etc. A person vomits from too much alcohol.
- Language/Profanity: The F-word is used throughout, as are most other profanities. Six different vulgar sexual words and references. Three uses of the Lord's name in vain.
- Sexual Content/Nudity: A woman is seen in her underwear. She kisses a man passionately. Man and woman in bed, covered, kissing. A man and woman dressing, post-adultery hook-up. A moment of breast-feeding (no nudity).
- Violence/Other: Intense war and combat scenarios. A lot of gunfire, bloody injuries, killings, occasionally very graphic. Tense sniper scenarios, with moral ambiguity. Some innocent Iraqi citizens are terrorized by troops, who themselves are trying to combat the enemy. A boy is tortured with an electric drill to his leg. A citizen is shot in the head point blank and killed. Other graphic killings and violence in war situations. Man shot in head, bloody and gory, body convulses. A woman is shot. Several sniper murders, with bloody results. Dead bodies and body parts of formerly tortured US soldiers and Iraqi citizens, in an Iraqi torture den. Car bombs and suicide bombers explode. A dead body drops from a building. Rough, semi-torturous drills during Navy SEAL training. Moments of men punching other men. Schoolyard fights between boys, with some blood. Deer killed in hunting scenario. Darts are thrown into a man's back.
Publication date: December 23, 2014