Uncluttered, confident and with no showing off, veteran director Clint Eastwood puts his usual strong touch on “American Sniper.”
It's an appropriate approach for this deceptively straightforward story detailing the experiences of soldier Chris Kyle (and based on his best-selling autobiography co-written with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice).
As a child, Chris (Bradley Cooper) was taught that people are either sheep (victims), wolves (bullies), or sheepdogs (protectors).
Chris chooses to be a sheepdog and joins the Navy SEALs, where his determination gets him through the grueling training program.
He meets and marries the lovely Taya (Sienna Miller), and after the 9/11 attacks, is sent to Iraq. Assigned to protect his fellow SEALs, his skill with a rifle is so awesome that he achieves the most confirmed kills in military history.
This is not always a good thing, as depicted in one harrowing scene. A woman attempts to throw a bomb at a group of Americans, and, should she fail, her young son is also on hand to complete the task. With finger on trigger, Chris must decide what to do.
He becomes a legend in Iraq, and keeps signing up for new tours of duty, much to the despair of Taya and their children. When Chris finally decides to come home for good, he finds he can't get the war out of his head; driving on the freeway is a source of tension, and loud noises snap him to alert.
Eventually, he discovers that helping other veterans and victims of PTSD brings him solace.
Many have pointed out that Kathryn Bigelow's great “The Hurt Locker” covers similar territory, but “American Sniper” tackles its own themes in ways different enough to matter.
Given Eastwood's track record, it's no surprise that his war footage is so forceful. It’s also no surprise that Cooper's performance is so striking. The actor bulks up and totally immerses himself into the role; he's practically unrecognizable.
But what's surprising about “American Sniper” is how subtly balanced it is.
Kyle's politics are firmly established. He believes the war in Iraq is justified and his work there is helping protect his country. However, as he did in the misunderstood “J. Edgar,” Eastwood brilliantly inserts the character into a world where things aren’t black-and-white and there are no certainties. “American Sniper” is neither a right-wing nor a left-wing movie.
Characters around Kyle do not always affirm or reflect his beliefs, but Kyle is still allowed to be totally human and sympathetic, regardless. He's a guy you could hang around with, even if you disagreed with him.
Three and a half stars
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Luke Grimes, Jake McDorman
Written by: Jason Hall
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Running time: 2 hours, 12 minutes