Short version: AWESOME!
The best thing you can say about American Sniper, which enters into wide release today after an official, Oscar-contention-timed premiere in December and a long period of controversy and critical praise, is that it is, above all, complex. Painfully, productively complex. It revels in its own ambiguities, ethical and otherwise—and this, in a world of bumper-sticker morality and patriotic pablum, is itself a significant achievement.
Based on the book American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, the movie is simple in its form: It’s a character study of a single, and singular, soldier. It tells the story of Chris Kyle—played, subtly and powerfully, by Bradley Cooper—and his path to record-breaking lethality: a childhood spent as (as Kyle put it in the book) a “regular redneck,” a young adulthood spent on the rodeo circuit. The embassy bombings of 1998— “look what they did to us,” Cooper’s Kyle tells his brother, as the footage of the wreckage plays on TV—led him to enlist as a Navy SEAL, quickly distinguishing himself for his prowess with a sniper rifle.
Then came 9/11. Kyle deployed. He proved to be exceptionally skilled at the job he’d signed up for. If you were to tally it up—and Kyle became famous because many people have—Kyle officially killed 160 people over his four tours of duty in Iraq. If you include probable kills, the number jumps to 225.
If you’re aiming to create a film that explores the wrenching moral complexities of war, it’s hard to imagine a better character to focus on than a sniper. A sniper, after all—an almost mythical union of man and gun, a modern-day mixture of centaur and centurion—is the closest the military has come to creating a human killing machine. The sniper may, like other soldiers, be subject to the cold anonymities of bombs and bullets. But his mission is specialized, and personalized. He finds his target, moving and warm. He aims. He “eliminates” and “neutralizes” and every other euphemism we use to separate the logic of war from the logic of murder. The result, though, is the same: The sniper ends lives. And through that work—as Kyle in his book, and Clint Eastwood in his film, repeatedly emphasize—he saves lives, too.
I’ve like Clint Eastwood since his days making spaghetti westerns, but he’s even a better director than an actor. (My mom tells me that my grandma liked watching Rawhide because of that cute Rowdy Yates.) American Sniper is Clint Eastwood’s best movie yet. The real Oscars snub wasn’t Selma, it was the failure to nominate Clint for best director.
Bradley Cooper deserves an Oscar for his portrayal of Chris Kyle. The physical resemblance is incredible, as is Sienna Miller’s resemblance of Kaya Kyle. But it’s almost eerie the way Cooper becomes Chris Kyle – he doesn’t look or sound like the Bradley Cooper we’ve come to know.
American Sniper is a great movie. It’s a powerful story, compellingly told. Don’t drink a lot of fluids because you won’t want to have to go pee and miss something. (I missed his son being born.)
The story is ultimately a tragedy – it ends with actual footage from Kyle’s memorial service. When the credits rolled, people clapped.
This isn’t like a John Wayne war movie – you don’t leave the theater ready to enlist and go kill bad guys. This may be the most realistic war movie ever made. It’s gory at times, but not unnecessarily so. There are no superheroes or Hollywood heroics. It’s a bunch of regular guys fighting in a foreign land.
If you like your war movies with ambiguity and moral relativism, you’ll be disappointed. In American Sniper the Americans are the good guys and the Iraqis are the bad guys. They’re not just bad, they’re EVIL.
What the movie really is is a case study on the effect of war on the warriors. It isn’t pretty.
I give the movie 5 honks. If you only see one movie this year, go see American Sniper.