Hitting the bullseye –
Hollywood can’t seem to release a movie these days without controversy, so “American Sniper” a film about Navy SEAL marksman Chris Kyle that depicts the personal ravages of war but with a slightly patriotic bend was sure to elicit some backlash. The fact that Kyle was a complex figure who may have exaggerated the truth and whose popular book was adapted by conservative-leaning director Clint Eastwood only adds to the controversy.
But let’s get one thing straight. “American Sniper” is by no means the first film to avoid certain controversial facts to tell its story, (which is different and more harmful than agenda based truth-twisting a la Oliver Stone) and the film will resonate with audiences who have tired of the way Hollywood has recently portrayed America’s role in the Middle East wars. “American Sniper” doesn’t rely on jingoistic platitudes nor does it underestimate the cost of war – indeed the film powerfully demonstrates the personal struggle of a soldier who’s sharpshooting acumen (over 160 confirmed kills) earned him a nickname “The Legend.” In real life Kyle might have relished the title, but here, a brawny-beefed up Bradley Cooper (never better) is noticeably shaken from the first time he has to kill an Iraqi woman and her child in order to save American lives.
Kyle represents many soldiers from the heartland, a modern day Cowboy with a strong father figure who taught him how to hunt and became instantly motivated to serve his country after 9/11. We can dispute the politics of this particular conflict, but Kyle is the type of individual you need on your side and every soldier wants a guy like him watching his back. Snipers have a critical objective to conceal themselves – often with little support except for a spotter– in the fiery trenches of urbanized war-torn cities with names like Fallujah and Mosul, and there lend reconnaissance support or provide cover for ground troops. One incredible, engaging sub-plot of “American Sniper” depicts Kyle’s attempts to take out an expert insurgent enemy sniper “Mustafa” sometimes from nearly a mile away. One unnerving scene shows a group of seemingly trapped U.S. soldiers under heavy fire escaping with the aid of a blinding sandstorm. Eastwood’s steady, economic direction gives “Sniper” an intense but restrained violence-centered visceral quality. Similarly great films like “The Hurt Locker” and “Blackhawk Down” were more graphic (and just as profane) but not any more gripping.
At the heart of “American Sniper” however, is Kyle’s relationship with new wife Taya (a moving Sienna Miller) with whom he becomes increasingly detached (emotionally and physically) as his tours in-country mount. Here Cooper extracts uncommon pathos from seemingly simple telephone calls home into turns both heart-wrenching and heartbreaking. War’s toll is not depicted in the frenetic fabrication of Hollywood special-effects gone wild but in the subtle yet visible pain on the face of a battle weary soldier.
For all that Chris Kyle wasn’t, he certainly was an American hero whose superior skills saved countless lives. As recent headlines suggest, unfortunately, we are likely going to need more, not fewer, soldiers like those depicted in “American Sniper” a boldly contrarian Hollywood product of which we also need more.
Rated R (for strong and disturbing war violence and language throughout)