I have limited knowledge about war and the reasons why the United States gets itself into it. As such, I will reserve judgment on this film's depiction of it. But because I am human, I can sympathize with the drive that Americans feel to protect their country from its enemies. That's why people stake life and limb on a daily basis in battles all around the world in its name, as well as how filmgoers receive countless depictions of these fights every year, whether it is through television or in movie theaters. Slowly but surely we are seeing more output about that most divisive of wars, the Iraq War, and that output is becoming more diverse, too. In 2009, we had The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow's high-tension investigation into the psychology (or psychosis) of a soldier who cannot feel unless he is in the heat of battle. Bigelow came back again in 2012 with the phenomenal procedural, Zero Dark Thirty, which refused to answer the moral questions it posed about our military's means of gathering information, and whether it was all worth it in the end. Now we have a film by Clint Eastwood, whose politics initially made me cringe at the thought of his handling a treatment of the Iraq War, especially through the lens of a soldier's autobiographical account of his experiences fighting in it. Thankfully, the result is more even-keeled and less chest-beating than I anticipated. It is a profoundly harrowing film that places you squarely in the boots of its protagonist and never lets up throughout its considerable runtime. As a rule, I am wary of war films, yet this is easily one of the best of the year.
Snipers have a unique position in the military in that they have to get a clear-eyed look at their target before eliminating him or her, without which they would be unable to do their job. Early on in what would become the career of the "most lethal sniper in U.S. history" (a fact the characters love to remind you about), Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) has to make an excruciating choice: he has to gun down a child, who happens to be running towards his fellow soldiers with a live grenade. This is his first task as a sniper, but he knows his decision is irrevocable and that he will have to face such situations on a daily basis. Kyle takes the shot, as well as a subsequent shot on the mother of the child, who fearlessly attempts to continue her son's suicidal assault. Look at Cooper's eyes after he hits his targets. The young Marine who acts as his partner is celebratory, but Kyle knows better—his is a grim task, because he has to simultaneously act as a savior and the angel of death. His kills are personal, and as his body count climbs higher, they etch themselves into his psyche.
This poses a problem for his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), whom he marries shortly before shipping off on the first of his four tours, which another character calculates to be just shy of three years overseas. When they meet cute at a bar at the tail end of Kyle's training, he is charming and reserved, his easygoing, distinctly Texan nature mirroring that of someone like Matthew McConaughey. By the end of tour number four, many of Kyle's friends have died, and he can barely handle it when a fawning soldier he saved in Fallujah sings his praises to Kyle's son in the lobby of an auto repair shop. Throughout all this, Cooper's performance is utterly tamped down, boiling beneath the surface in a way that no one could have predicted he would be capable of. His Chris Kyle is the polar opposite of characters like Rocket Raccoon, Richie DiMaso, and Pat from Silver Linings Playbook, and if he weren't a star before this film, he certainly is now. And although she is receiving far less attention than he, Miller is every bit as integral to this film's success. She is grounded and authentic in the kind of way that a military wife would have to be to hold their family together, insistent on his deep-seated psychological issues, and nevertheless supportive of him every step of the way. Between this and her underexposed turn in Foxcatcher, she is becoming one of Hollywood's most effective actresses, delivering memorable work in spite of her lack of screen time.
Coming off of a series of misfires (Jersey Boys, J. Edgar, and Hereafter), it is understandable that Eastwood might provide some cause for concern. Yet his solemn, funereal style is particularly well suited to this material. Eastwood excels in dramatizing the lives of extraordinary, ordinary people, and he wisely keeps the military agenda in the background, all the better to focus on the man at the center of this story. American Sniper never gets wrapped up in the ideology behind the U.S.'s presence in Iraq, and instead zeroes in on why someone would not only want to fight there, but even go so far as to drop back from the relatively safe vantage point of a sniper and to be on the front lines with the rest of the soldiers. Although the majority of the audience (with me definitely included) would never seek to fight in a war, we come to understand what drives someone to volunteer for the job, and how that motivation is systematically worn down by the experience of actually doing it. The editing by Joel Cox and Gary Roach blurs the line between Kyle's life as a soldier and his life as a father, cutting from the battlefield to his home quickly and without warning. This is an exceedingly well crafted film from the top down, and proves that Eastwood still has good work left in him, even as he inches closer towards ninety.
American Sniper may not have the best marketing behind it—one would believe that it was a jingoistic gun wank upon a glance at the trailer—but it is elegiac when it could have been bombastic, and quiet when it could have been thundering (although it is certainly thundering when it counts). Cooper's performance is a career high point in an already stellar body of work, and it is in the service of a gripping, unsettling film.