LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) - A skillful, straightforward combat picture gradually develops into something more complex and ruminative in Clint Eastwood's "American Sniper," an account of the Iraq War as observed through the rifle sights of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, whose four tours of duty cemented his standing as the deadliest marksman in U.S. military history. Hard-wiring the viewer into Kyle's battle-scarred psyche thanks to an excellent performance from a bulked-up Bradley Cooper, this harrowing and intimate character study offers fairly blunt insights into the physical and psychological toll exacted on the front lines, yet strikes even its familiar notes with a sobering clarity that finds the 84-year-old filmmaker in very fine form. Depressingly relevant in the wake of recent headlines, Warners' Dec. 25 release should drum up enough grown-up audience interest to work as a serious-minded alternative to more typical holiday fare, and looks to extend its critical and commercial reach well into next year.
Although Steven Spielberg was set to direct before exiting the project last summer (just a few months after Kyle's death in Texas at the age of 38), "American Sniper" turns out to be very much in Eastwood's wheelhouse, emerging as arguably the director's strongest, most sustained effort in the eight years since his WWII double-header of "Flags of Our Fathers" and "Letters From Iwo Jima." As was clear in those films and this one, few directors share Eastwood's confidence with large-scale action, much less his inclination to investigate the brutality of what he shows us -- to acknowledge both the pointlessness and the necessity of violence while searching for more honest, ambiguous definitions of heroism than those to which we're accustomed. In these respects and more, Kyle -- who earned the nickname "Legend" from his fellow troops, achieved a staggering record of 160 confirmed kills, and became one of the most coveted targets of the Iraqi insurgency -- makes for a uniquely fascinating and ultimately tragic case study.
We first meet Kyle (Cooper) as he's hunched over a rooftop overlooking a blown-out structure in Fallujah, Iraq, taking deadly aim at a local woman and her young son walking some distance away; only Kyle's specific vantage allows him to see that they're preparing to lob a grenade at nearby Marines. The fraught situation and its queasy-making stakes thus introduced, the film abruptly flashes back some 30-odd years to Kyle's Texas childhood, establishing him as a skilled shooter at a young age (played by Cole Konis) as well as a brave protector to his younger brother, Jeff (Luke Sunshine). After a brief rodeo career, Cooper's Kyle joins the ranks of the Navy SEALs, whose brutal training regimen -- including the muddy beachfront endurance tests of the dreaded Hell Week -- is depicted more extensively here than they were in last year's military-memoir adaptation "Lone Survivor."
As scripted by Jason Hall (paring down Kyle's 2012 autobiography, written with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice), these flashbacks form the film's most conventional stretch, including a tartly humorous scene at a bar where Kyle charms his way past the defenses of the beautiful Taya (Sienna Miller), despite her early claim that she'd never date one of those "arrogant, self-centered pricks" who call themselves SEALs. Yet Kyle belies that description, revealing himself as a God-fearing, red-blooded American galvanized into fighting, as so many were, by the shock of 9/11 and his determination to avenge his country. Indeed, the ink is barely dry on his and Taya's marriage license when Kyle gets shipped off to Fallujah, where he and his comrades are well served by his exceptional abilities as a sniper.
It's here that the story catches up with that tense mother-and-child setup, this time not sparing us the gruesome, inevitable aftermath. Describing his actions to a fellow soldier, Kyle breathes, "That was evil like I had never seen before" -- a statement that lingers meaningfully as we watch him racking up kill after kill, efficiently dispatching the male Iraqi insurgents he spies surreptitiously arming themselves in a back alley, or driving a car bomb in the direction of American soldiers. In each of these life-or-death scenarios, Kyle must use what little time he has to swiftly assess whether his targets indeed pose an immediately actionable threat, lest he face recriminations from lawyers, liberals and other members of the Blame America First crowd (a point the book drives home far more vehemently than the film).
Not surprisingly, Eastwood avoids wading into the ideological murk of the situation and sticks tightly to Kyle's p.o.v., yielding an almost purely experiential view of the conflict in which none of the other soldiers becomes more than a two-dimensional sketch, dates and locations are rarely identified, and any larger geopolitical context has been deliberately elided. (Some details have clearly been fudged; Kyle says he's 30 when he enlists, but he was actually in his mid-20s.) Yet the achievement of "American Sniper" is the way it subtly undermines and expands its protagonist's initially gung-ho worldview, as Eastwood deftly teases out any number of logistical and ethical complications: Kyle's frustration at always having to engage from a distance rather than on the ground with his comrades; the sometimes difficult collaboration between the SEALs and the less well-trained Marines, especially when they begin the dangerous task of clearing out Iraqi houses; and above all, the near-impossibility of figuring out whom to trust in an environment where everyone is presumed hostile.
This becomes especially crucial when Kyle and company receive orders to take down the Al Qaeda terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his vicious second-in-command, the Butcher (Mido Hamada), named in part for his imaginative use of power drills. The hunt for the Butcher -- and, eventually, a Syrian-born sniper named Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), whose lethal precision rivals Kyle's own -- leads the troops into a series of breathless skirmishes, from a horrific Al Qaeda attack on the family of an Iraqi sheikh (Navid Negahban) to a nighttime ambush that develops as a result of Kyle's extraordinary perceptiveness in a seemingly benign situation. Working as usual with d.p. Tom Stern and editors Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach, Eastwood handles these ambitious setpieces with an unfussy professionalism worthy of his subject, the camera maintaining a gritty, ground-level feel (with the exception of a few crane shots demanded by the complex staging of the film's climactic shootout) while switching deftly among a range of perspectives that nonetheless maintain a strong continuity of action.
Less adroitly handled are the regular cutaways to Taya and their two children back in Texas, providing necessary but over-emphatic reminders that Kyle's loved ones are paying dearly for his military service. Taya seems to have a bad habit of catching her husband on the phone at those unfortunate moments when mortar and shrapnel are exploding around him (which is understandably often). When he's home on leave, he's painfully distant, reluctant to talk about his experiences and barely able to function, which is Taya's cue to spout some gratingly obvious dialogue of the "Even when you're here, you're not here" variety. What works in these scenes, however, is the disquieting sense that Kyle's normal life has shifted into the war zone, and that his time with his family is passing him by in fast, jarring blips; we see his kids at only brief intervals here, and the rate at which they grow up must be as startling for him as it is for us.
In its revelation of character through action, its concern with procedure rather than politics, and its focus on an exceptionally gifted U.S. soldier struggling to make sense of his small yet essential place in a war he only partly understands, Eastwood's picture can't help but recall "The Hurt Locker," and if it's ultimately a more earnest and prosaic, less formally daring affair than Kathryn Bigelow's film, it nevertheless emerges as one of the few dramatic treatments of the U.S.-Iraq conflict that can stand in its company. And just as "The Hurt Locker" found revelatory depths in Jeremy Renner, so "American Sniper" hinges on Cooper's restrained yet deeply expressive lead performance, allowing many of the drama's unspoken implications to be read plainly in the actor's increasingly war-ravaged face.
Cooper, who packed on 40 pounds for the role, is superb here; full of spirit and down-home charm early on, he seems to slip thereafter into a sort of private agony that only those who have truly served their country can know. (A late sequence shot in an impenetrable sandstorm provides the most literal possible metaphor for his own personal fog of war.) Perhaps the film's most humanizing touch is its willingness to show Kyle not just reacting but thinking, attempting to grasp ideas that have thus far eluded him, whether he's spending time with veterans who have lost limbs and worse on the battlefield; coming to grips with the difference between him and his reluctant-Marine brother (Keir O'Donnell); or shrugging awkwardly when someone calls him a "hero," as if the word were a particularly ill-fitting sweater.
While the circumstances of Kyle's death add a note of tragic urgency to the film's matter-of-fact examination of post-traumatic stress disorder, the moment itself is left offscreen, a decision that feels consistent with the scrupulous restraint that characterizes the production as a whole. The visual and editorial choices discreetly reinforce the clash between the hell of modern warfare (the color all but drained away from Stern's images) and the purgatory of middle-class American life, accentuated by a sound mix that allows us to register the hard pop of every gunshot. While Eastwood's musical compositions have sometimes been hit-or-miss, he's never written a subtler score than the one here, providing faint, almost imperceptible accompaniment; in a film that encourages us to reflect as well as feel, it's a choice that speaks volumes.