Synopsis: Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle’s pinpoint accuracy saves countless lives on the battlefield and turns him into a legend. Back home to his wife and kids after four tours of duty, however, Chris finds that it is the war he cannot leave behind. (Synopsis from IMDb)
Review: There has been a dearth of well-crafted war films recently. Unbroken was okay but it lacked a much needed emotional punch. Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is what Unbroken should have been. It is emotional, respectful, poignant, and extremely well-crafted. This is not necessarily a war film, it is more of a character study set in a war zone. In this case, the narrative is about US Navy SEAL Chris Kyle and the emotional toll of his four tours in Iraq. Kyle is deployed to Iraq for one reason: to protect his fellow soldiers. His accuracy saves numerous lives and he earns the nickname “Legend” based upon his courageous exploits. Also Kyle strives to be a good father and husband while serving half a world away. And when he does come home, he struggles to leave the battlefield behind.
American Sniper is imperfect, but also compellingly complicated. The movies does not explore Kyle’s values or justifications. Instead the narrative focuses on the spiritual and psychological toll of doing his job. Unlike other war films, Sniper never undermines or mocks Kyle’s worldview or duty. As far as Kyle is concerned, he did necessary if troubling work in a tumultuous war. Instead, the movie focuses on the idea that Kyle is not quite cognizant of the effect his duty is having on his psyche. There is no moment of self-awareness, the movie instead explores the intricacies of Kyle’s character. Bradley Cooper does a phenomenal job portraying the internal conflict of Kyle. Cooper makes Kyle come alive on the screen and nails the emotional turmoil of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Also, Cooper does an excellent job of making sure that Kyle never comes across as a caricature. Instead, Cooper’s Kyle seems as if he is merely being recorded and will continue to exist after the credits roll.
However, an actor can only carry a film so far. Thankfully, Eastwood is a gifted director and directed the film in an old-fashioned literal style. In other words, he gives the actors enough direction to know what to do and then steps back and lets the magic happen. While his style can be a little rough, his directing style is straightforward and clean cut. Also, Eastwood uses music to a devastating effect. There is no score to the film, he only uses percussion to punctuate certain scenes and a bass hum to drive home the dramatic moments. Otherwise, the background noise is silent and allows the story to speak for itself. Then moments of extreme violence and brutality punctuate the story and permits the audience to dig into Kyle’s psyche after each kill.
Eastwood is a director almost in his own class, though I think Ron Howard could give him a run for his money. Anyways, Eastwood’s control and command over the material means there is no unnecessary filler. When Kyle and his comrades search through war torn Iraqi cities, the camera shows what is needed to portray a dramatic moment and nothing else. This keeps the narrative lean and focused. There is no wasted screen time and the narrative never loses speed. This results in a film packed with action and drama. The film paints a depressing portrait of the effects of PTSD on veterans and their families. Eastwood captures this effect by interspersing war scenes with stateside drama. This results in an emotional and slightly uneasy feeling, which is precisely the tone the film means to portray
Do not go into this film expecting non-stop action and moralizing. Unlike other modern war films, the moral compass of this film is skillfully woven into the dilemmas faced by Kyle. There is a great depth to this film that is present from the opening scene when Kyle has to decide whether or not to shoot a woman who may/may not be holding a weapon. No life is taken lightly and the film charts how all these kills effect Kyle on/off the battlefield. American Sniper does have more than enough climatic action scenes. But the real dramatic and emotional depth occurs in the scenes depicting Kyle’s interactions with his family. There is one scene where Kyle is recognized by a veteran but is unable to engage in a conversation. It is an excellent study in subtle acting. All the stateside scenes are some of the best depictions of PTSD in a modern American war film.
I think American Sniper is easily one of the best war films released in ten years. It does not set out to indoctrinate the audience or undermine the actions of the military. Instead it is a character study on the psychological effects of war and how difficult it can be for soldiers to adjust to a non-warfare environment. Bradley Cooper delivers one of the best performances of his career and dominates the screen with the force of his presence. Clint Eastwood has made a truly moving film that is respectful to Chris Kyle’s memory. Eastwood neither judges nor condones Kyle’s actions, he merely tells it as it is and leaves the audience to decide upon a viewpoint.