AMERICAN SNIPER * * *
Starring Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Keir O’Donnell, Luke Grimes and Sammy Sheik. Screenplay by Jason Hall. Directed by Clint Eastwood.
There’s a scene I’d like to talk to you about that occurs roughly ninety minutes into Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper. A soldier has been killed in action, and so we see Bradley Cooper’s Navy SEAL Chris Kyle flying back to America, sitting silently alongside his fallen friend in a cargo-hold full of all those flag-draped coffins that the Bush administration took such care to keep away from news cameras.
A woman’s voice arrives on the soundtrack. It is the soldier’s mother reading a letter he wrote to her a mere two weeks before his death. Eastwood transitions to a garden of stone, where she’s struggling between sobs to recite it aloud at her son’s funeral.
“My question is, when does glory fade away and become a wrongful crusade? Or an unjustified means which consumes one completely? I’ve seen war, and I’ve seen death…”
She doesn’t get to finish reading the letter — abruptly interrupted by the three volley salute and a lonely horn playing “Taps.” Kyle stares daggers at the woman through his sunglasses for speaking such heresy, while he’s flinching at the rifle reports fired by the honor guard.
There’s a lot going on here, not the least of which is insistent patriotic pageantry serving as paltry band-aids for so many still-bleeding wounds.
A complicated movie about an uncomplicated man, American Sniper strips down and rearranges Chris Kyle’s best-selling, self-aggrandizing autobiography into something far more troubled and unsettling. “It’s a hell of a thing killing a man,” Eastwood once growled in maybe his most iconic moment, and like most of Clint’s films Sniper is a deeply conflicted meditation on violent men killing one another while they slowly die inside.
Chris Kyle was a good ole boy rodeo regular from Texas who signed on for four tours in Iraq and ended up becoming the most lethal marksman in American military history, credited with 160 confirmed kills. Played with a forthright, taciturn vulnerability that’s nothing less than a revelation from Bradley Cooper – who previously cornered the market on swaggering assholes and has never before displayed this kind of quiet, heartbreaking minimalism – the movie’s version of Kyle is a duty-bound man doing everything he is asked without questioning how they got here.
He’s a good soldier.
His first day on the job Kyle has to head-shot an Iraqi woman and her pre-school-aged son who are about to lob grenades at a Marine convoy. It’s a shattering sequence, stretched out rather ruthlessly by Eastwood. There’s no question that Kyle did what he had to do. Now he’s gotta find a way to live with it.
“God, country, family,” is Chris’ oft-repeated motto. Not sure if he’s referring to the Bible he never reads or the family he keeps avoiding, re-enlisting over and over because the film makes it clear that he just can’t function in a normal civilian life anymore. It’s harrowing to watch the light go out behind Cooper’s eyes as the film wears on, to see a person gradually hollowed out by horror. American Sniper is brutal and unsparing about the psychological toll our constant conflicts take on the young men we send to fight them.
Feeding into the contradictions, it’s also crackerjack war picture, full of white-knuckle suspense sequences directed with a verve we haven’t seen from this particular filmmaker in ages. (At 84 years old, Clint can still kick most young whippersnappers off his lawn.) It breaks from history to conjure a nemesis for Kyle, a similarly super-heroic Iraqi sniper named Mustafa (Sammy Sheik) who we likewise see with his own wife and child, another doppelganger in Eastwood’s long career of presenting antagonists as shadowy reflections of our so-called heroes.
Kyle’s gung-ho fortitude never wavers, even as we watch The War On Terror degenerate into an increasingly disorganized free-for-all that leaves everyone including his little brother cursing the whole fucking mess. Chris’ re-upping starts to feel more like a compulsion, eventually putting his fellow soldiers at risk in his revenge-fueled obsession to take down Mustafa, since nothing else about this war makes any damn sense anymore.
It’s only when Chris has killed his double – this dark mirror of himself – that Kyle can finally bear to go home. Eastwood orchestrates the moment in a breathtaking sequence during which a sandstorm swoops in, confusing and confounding our perspectives as a metaphor for the muddle that was Iraq. There’s a shot of an abandoned rifle being buried by the blowing sands that’s one for the ages, smash-cutting to Cooper loitering at a local Texas dive bar when his wife calls wondering why he hasn’t come home yet. He’s still not ready to pretend anything is normal, even now that it’s all over.
Had it ended right there, American Sniper might have been a masterpiece. Unfortunately it continues on for twenty more minutes (feels like so much longer, I was shocked when I clocked it) conspicuously eliding Chris Kyle’s post-war Reality Show notoriety and making a botch of the circumstances surrounding his murder. Worse, over the closing credits Clint gives in to the flag-waving funeral pomp and circumstance that the scene I mentioned at the top of this piece so brilliantly undercut.
But for all these flaws American Sniper is still a knotty, difficult movie that doesn’t coddle audiences and certainly doesn’t tell you what you want to hear. Worrying and stubbornly unfussy, it digs around the contradictions of our country’s history of violence without being presumptuous enough to try and explain or solve them.
In other words, it’s an Eastwood picture.