Saturday, December 27, 2014

Film Review: 'American Sniper'

'American Sniper' is the year's most extraordinary film

By Kyle Smith
December 23, 2014

There is a class of men in whom is contained a distilled essence of the American spirit. Sturdy, taciturn and mysterious, these men tend to come from places like Virginia, Georgia, Texas. They have a devout attachment to guns, which are, to them, Old Testament swords of righteousness. Their seriousness of purpose seems archaic. They are our warrior class. Women find them irresistible; lesser men salute, if they are wise, or scoff, if they are not.

Chris Kyle was one such warrior. As embodied by Bradley Cooper in “American Sniper,” he is imposing, determined and lethal, a Navy SEAL who did four tours of duty in Iraq, killing by the score men who needed to be killed. In the film, Kyle calls the Islamist fanatics what they are: “savages,” and in such moments, director Clint Eastwood’s overpowering war film scintillates with clarity.
The film runs on three tracks: Kyle’s childhood, in which he absorbed his values; his Iraq tours, in which he shot and killed some 160 enemies and witnessed the agony of many comrades; and his off-duty life in Texas, where, in the company of his children and wife (a composed Sienna Miller), he continued to hear war’s echoes, sometimes so loud that they submerged his personality.
“American Sniper” portrays Kyle as something of an armed saint, if a troubled one, but though I ordinarily resist one-sided portrayals, I think that Cooper and Eastwood find in the man a template. After 40 years of Hollywood counterpropaganda telling us war is necessarily corrupting and malign, its ablest practitioners thugs, loons or victims, “American Sniper” nobly presents the case for the other side. It doesn’t say violence is beautiful, but that it is necessary, placing it closer to “Unforgiven” than to Eastwood’s dreadfully reductionist war pictures “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima.”
Cooper is devastating, not straining to be fierce but letting his newly beefy presence and his attention to the details of long-range marksmanship convey the robust professionalism of the SEALs. Eastwood alternates between harrowing war imagery — a mesmerizing battle in a sandstorm recalls the vertiginous chaos of “Black Hawk Down” — and quieter moments of equal power. When young Chris learns that the world is divided among sheep, wolves and sheepdogs, and that his calling is to be one of the latter, it’s a parable with biblical weight.
The moral alertness of the film is of the level normally confined, in military pictures, to talky courtroom scenes, yet Eastwood skillfully works dilemmas into propulsive and suspenseful action. The depth is present from the beginning, when Kyle must decide whether to shoot an Iraqi woman who might be concealing an explosive. He processes the staggering consequences of making the wrong decision — even as he knows that should his suspicions prove correct, to take a life is an immense thing.
Mapping the interior landscape of a damaged soul is something books do better than movies, but in Cooper’s recoils from sudden noises, in his slumping at a hometown bar when his wife doesn’t even know he’s back in the country and in his staring at the floor when thanked for his prowess, we learn much about the price warriors pay. Cowboys, adventurers, joyriders — these are exactly what our best fighting men are not. They suffer merely to be alive, when so many brothers lie in boxes draped with flags. “American Sniper” does honor to them.

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