Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Review: American Sniper

Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.
Based on a true story that is devastating in more ways than one, "American Sniper" is Clint Eastwood's finest film since 2008's underrated "Gran Torino." Most of the best films about the wars in the Middle East have incorporated their own unique methods of telling stories involved in the conflicts, such as Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty," which played as a police procedural. Eastwood's film combines elements of the typical combat film, although it features sequences right at home in an action thriller, and the war-brought-home genre, in other words movies about how soldiers acclimate to returning to the States, such as Hal Ashby's "Coming Home."

In many ways, the film is unique to Eastwood's oeuvre in that it isn't marked by the jazzy improvisational feel of his early 2000s movies and moves at a much faster pace. I don't mean this as a back-handed compliment, but the director has made a film of such nonstop intensity that it would appear that the 84-year-old shows no signs of slowing down.

At the center of the film is Bradley Cooper, in what must be one of his finest performances to date. He plays NAVY seal Chris Kyle, who is said to be the United States' most lethal sniper in history, killing more than 160 persons during his numerous tours in Iraq. Much like Bigelow's Middle East movies, Eastwood's picture does not give an overt statement on the war's effectiveness or lack thereof, but the culmination of scenes portraying the hells of combat, others in which Kyle and his fellow marines suffer through post traumatic stress disorder and a vision of Iraq as a land overcome by chaos amid the war says more than enough.

The film's earlier scenes strike a different tone and while they're good enough, I was unsure early on how they would impact the entirety of the picture. In the end, they didn't particularly. We meet Kyle at an early age as he defends his brothers against bullies, prompting his father to lecture him on how "we protect our own." As he grows up into a young man, he aimlessly attempts to live a "cowboy" lifestyle and sleep around with as many women as possible, that is, until a news item involving an overseas bombing on a U.S. embassy catches his attention.

Kyle signs up for the marines and, shortly thereafter, meets Taya (Sienna Miller), his wife-to-be, and life appears to be shaping up nicely for him. Then, of course, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 take place and everything changes. An early scene in the film during which Chris hunts with his father sets us up for the fact that the man has good aim. Kyle becomes a sniper and his first kill is a woman and her young child, who are carrying a grenade.

From there, it only gets worse. On a daily basis, Kyle must use his moment's judgment to determine whether the Iraqi men on the street are innocent bystanders or dangerous persons. His numerous killings are portrayed bluntly with little melodrama, making their impact more harsh.

Kyle becomes involved in the hunt for a man known as The Butcher, a particularly horrid human being who takes drills and other sharp objects to men, women and children who oppose his boss, militant Islamist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was, at one time, the U.S. military's most wanted man in Iraq. He also becomes involved in a dangerous game of cat and mouse with an Iraqi sniper  and former Olympic sharpshooter known as Mustafa. This second plot line could have become a typical Hollywood attempt to make one villainous character act as a stand-in for an entire conflict, but Eastwood thankfully dodges that, for lack of a better word, bullet.

The film is a tragic one, not only because of specific events that transpired in the very real lives of its characters, but also in its portrayal of how soldiers are sent off to war, where they are often faced with the choice of committing inhumane acts against other human beings or meeting horrific deaths themselves. "American Sniper" poses no easy answers to this conundrum and I'm not sure there are any. As I said before, the film does not lay any judgment - positive or negative - on the Iraq War. It merely portrays the horrors of war and the cost which those who partake in it end up paying. It's an intense, often shocking and heartbreaking movie.

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