GARNERING plenty of Oscar attention – including the Best Picture and Best Actor nominations – American Sniper is Clint Eastwood’s attempt to tell the story of US Navy SEAL Chris Kyle: the most lethal sniper in military history.
Based on Kyle’s best-selling autobiography of the same name, at a surface level we follow him on his four tours of duty in Iraq, but as with most of Eastwood’s films, there is something else going on just underneath.
Brought up around guns and hunting, Kyle (Bradley Cooper) seemingly has an affinity for the rifle, and signs up for action following the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.
Flashbacks to Kyle’s training and life before the military are intercut, and it is through these scenes, along with Kyle’s trips back home between tours, that we begin to see the outline of his character emerge.
A pumped-up Cooper seems perfect for the lead role, convincingly displaying both faces of Kyle.
Earning the nickname “Legend” for his incredible battlefield abilities, in the thick of it Kyle is controlled and dominant – part inspirational leader, part uncannily gifted warrior, he becomes the man that the other men feel uncomfortable going into action without.
At home, it is a different story. Kyle’s wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), struggles to raise their children in his absence and each time he returns, he is a little more distant and eager to return to the familiar chaos of war.
American Sniper is a film of grand action and small moments. It is the latter that are dotted surreptitiously throughout the movie that pack the most punch – moments such as when Taya walks in on her husband staring at the powered-off television set bring home the potent reality of PTSD, and the effects that prolonged exposure to war are having on Kyle.
It’s a shame in a way that Eastwood’s focus oscillates between the two worlds. The action we see in Iraq is exciting, well-crafted, and disturbing.
Eastwood is unafraid to show the horror of war, but there is a sense that he shies away from its reality. At a time when we have started to expect a more nuanced form of storytelling around war, this is a throwback to a story of good guys and bad guys.
Every Iraqi we see on screen for the duration is in one way or another complicit in wrongdoing – it’s a battlefield that seems to leave one side of the story sorely lacking.
The scenes that cover the much more grey area of Kyle’s life in the US are where both Cooper and Eastwood have the most success – but these seem to play second fiddle to the loud and bombastic action scenes in Iraq.
A stilted ending is the final sour note in this story – American Sniper manages to be entertaining, and Cooper excels, but you can’t escape the sense that the material could have been used to tell a deeper and more nuanced story.