First things first: American Sniper is not a documentary. I understood this going into the film and, it seems to me, this fact ought to be grasped by anyone seeing this movie or writing about it or commenting on it. The controversy surrounding the veracity of the events depicted in the movie is, I think, much ado about noting. “Based on a true story” is not the same thing as “the following events are true.” American Sniper is based on the true story of Chris Kyle, the so-called most lethal sniper in US history. It’s not billed as the exhaustive story of his life. It’s a work of fiction and a pretty darn good one.
American Sniper is not an easy movie to watch. Anyone who has seen the trailer (which, come on, is most of the American public that owns a television or has an internet connection) knows that the tension is very high in the movie and the choices facing Chris Kyle are absolutely of the life-and-death variety. I have never been in a war zone, but it seems to me that director Clint Eastwood wants me and his audience to feel as though we have. He very much succeeds on this count. The war scenes are brutal and emotional and my heart raced during them. Clearly Eastwood wanted his audience to look down the barrel with Chris Kyle and, if not exactly empathize, to feel some of what Kyle felt. Not to pun here, but mission accomplished.
As impressive as creating the atmosphere of overwhelming tension during the battlefield scenes is what Eastwood accomplishes when Kyle is at home between his tours. The tension between Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle and Sienna Miller as his wife Taya is somehow more real to me that what is depicted in war. The movie has a black-and-white approach to Kyle in wartime. He is doing what he believes is right and there are very few politics at play during these moments. I wouldn’t say these scenes play as Top Gun for the Navy SEALS but neither do they run like Platoon. They struck me as relatively free of bias and this is something of an achievement for Eastwood who has a reputation as a dyed-in-the-wool Republican. He doesn’t take an opportunity for propaganda here. He presents the action. It is at home that the movie feels anti-war. The damage inflicted on Kyle is far-reaching. The damage he has the potential to inflict on his family is vast. Cooper and Miller play out the story of the home front in heartbreaking fashion. These beats were the ones that made me question the necessity of what Cooper’s Kyle was doing overseas far more than when the character was actually doing things overseas. And this is saying something given that what the character is doing is killing people.
I like Eastwood’s films (even the much maligned Jersey Boys of last year) and it is stunning to me that he can, year-after-year, crank out such well made movies. It helps that actors of the caliber of Cooper and Miller want to work with him.
Bradley Cooper is Oscar nominated for his work here and that’s not surprising, the actor is normally Oscar caliber. He disappears under 40 extra pounds as Kyle and, in what seems a deceptively straight forward performance, exudes amazing nuance out of a lead role that is almost all action and little dialogue. Cooper’s Kyle is a man of few words, so Cooper has more to do in his acting than deliver lines. He is asked to carry the movie (he’s the backbone of the piece) with the burden of having little to say. He must also convince the audience of the character’s transitions from war machine to struggling veteran to confident civilian. It’s a journey that he plays exceedingly well. Oh, and he also has to convince the audience that the most fake baby in the history of recent cinema is real. He deserves the Oscar for that work alone.
As mentioned earlier, Sienna Miller is excellent, too. She takes a role that could be shrill and less than sympathetic in lesser hands and makes it powerful. Without her Taya and the stateside scenes interspersed throughout the film, the audience would have been left with a more intense but less dramatic movie. The film wouldn’t have been nearly as good.
American Sniper isn’t the most well written movie I’ve ever seen. There is a certain choppiness to the writing. It’s also not the best directed movie I’ve ever seen. There are places where Eastwood loses a bit of focus on what his story is. Somehow, however, the result is greater than the sum of its parts and the movie owes Bradley Cooper for that. The intensity works because Cooper is so believable in the life-and-death moments. His morality centers the movie and gives it its heft. His journey leads the audience to the questions about modern warfare and the psychological scars of soldiers that are powerful and deep. His performance makes the movie worth watching.
AMERICAN SNIPER receives THREE and a HALF FAKE BABIES out of a possible FIVE.