Early on in American Sniper, the movie based on the life of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) the most lethal Sniper in US military history credited with over 160 kills in Iraq, we learn that his colleagues nicknamed him ‘The Legend.’ The word ‘Legend,’ is frequently used, often recklessly, to describe certain individuals in everyday vernacular, but in the instance of Clint Eastwood it is deserved.
Eastwood is eighty-four years old with a career spanning seven decades. With American Sniper he seems to have material that is the perfect fit for his knack of telling compelling and thoughtful stories about America. If the movie was made thirty years ago, you could even imagine Eastwood playing Kyle.
The big screen story of Chris Kyle takes him from his early days as a God-loving cowboy in Texas. We see his origins as a sharpshooter and there is a succinct dictum provided by Chris Kyle’s father that becomes the his mantra in life. We also witness his brutal training as a Navy SEAL and, following the events of 9/11, his deployment to Iraq where we chart the four tours of duty that Chris Kyle endured, intertwined with his home life with wife Taya (Sienna Miller) and young family.
While the movie provides us with one of the best Iraq war movies yet, it is mainly a character study of Kyle,with a performance delivered expertly by Bradley Cooper. The physically transformed Cooper brings a nuanced performance to the role of Kyle. He believes he is a man of simple values, American values, which at times border on making him sound like he is a member of Team America: World Police. Throughout we hear the Americans refer to the Iraqis as ‘savages’ yet the movie does not acknowledge the politics of the war. It is more concerned with the men who fight in war, with concepts of heroism, violence and the consequences of war both physically and mentally. Kyle’s patriotism and desire to protect his country and brothers may grate against the more liberal viewer but what pulls the story back is how heavily the cost of war weighs his soul.
The bulk of the film focuses on events in Iraq but it is when Kyle returns home between tours that we see the effects of the PTSD he develops. Sienna Miller should be commended for her performance as wife Taya Kyle, providing the emotional counterpoint to Cooper’s restrained performance. She also provides the strongest supporting role in the movie. If there is one criticism it is that the pace is so ferocious that scenes at the couples home sometimes feel reduced in favour of the action in Baghdad and Fallujah.
The movie is action packed but it is propelled by the story. Early on Kyle becomes obsessed with finding a terrorist knows as the Butcher, along with his own deadly marksman. The enemy sniper succeeds at projecting a deadly mirror image of Kyle with their encounters building towards a climatic battle worthy of Call of Duty proportions.
Perhaps the greatest criticism of the movie is that Kyle’s return to civilian life and subsequent events receive little screen time. It could be argued that the story would have been more complete for its inclusion but the movie does not suffer greatly for such an omission.
A tense and absorbing psychodrama, deserving of recent Oscar Nominations, American Sniper is one of the best war movies in years, dealing with ideals such as heroism, patriotism and justice. It is also a study in how the consequences of war can weigh heavy on the lives of the soldiers who fight them.
Far more than your average biographical war drama, American Sniper deals in pathos, peril and patriotism, all held in place by a series of outstanding performances.
American Sniper is out in cinemas across the UK on Friday 16th January.