Contrary to popular belief the Grand Canyon and Mount Hood were not the creations of Paul Bunyan. Sure, he may have had an ox named Babe, but I doubt it was blue. As children it was easy to be enthralled listening to tall tales about Paul Bunyan – he was Chuck Norris before Chuck Norris had “facts” that have yet to be unproven. Yet, it’s one thing to want to believe a myth, how about a legend?
For Clint Eastwood, having played the likes of “Dirty” Harry Callahan and The Man With No Name, he knows a thing or two about legendary cinematic heroes. So it only makes sense that his second film of 2014 (following Jersey Boys) be a feature that lionizes a man that represents some of his famous gung-ho heroes while also highlighting the implicit toll war has on an individual.
It would be easy for Eastwood to produce a feature that is a straight-up homage to ’80s-era patriotism – and it plays like that on the surface – but American Sniper is overall a tense and sad account of the brief life of the most accomplished marksman in American military, Chris Kyle. The filmfollows Eastwood’s own Flags of Our Fathers and Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker in examining the reasons men enlist and go to war, then followed by the lingering effects when returning home. Bradley Cooper, picking up a Texas twang to go with a beefier physique, plays Chris Kyle, a man who like Marcus Luttrell (whose band of brothers story of heroism was the subject of Lone Survivor) helps to bolster the visibility of the Navy SEALs for the coming years. Doing four tours in Iraq as a sniper Kyle picked up a few nicknames to go along with his mythical status. Insurgents called him “The Devil of Ramadi”, but his fellow SEALs labeled him “The Legend” for his expert marksmanship and 160 confirmed kills. As impressive as it is seeing Cooper shooting enemies 500 meters away from the rooftops of Fallujah, it is his quiet intensity and moments of muted silence away from the action that is most revealing.
It’s no surprise that guns play heavily into the film’s narrative. Long before Kyle enlists we have a short sequence of him as a young kid shooting his first buck on a hunting trip with his father. When young Kyle drops his gun to check on the fallen deer his father reprimands him to never leave his gun unattended in the woods. There are a few other moments from his youth that try to extrapolate Kyle’s nature when it comes to God, country and family, but there is little introspection to be gained – almost as if the intention is to place focus on his legendary staus and nothing more.
American Sniper uses heroism as a means to counteract the lack of its subject. By this token the greatest aspect is not Eastwood’s surefooted direction, the highlight being the climatic firefight in the third act (easily one of the best action sequences of the year), but Bradley Cooper’s portrayal as Chris Kyle. Cooper has an authority about him on the battlefield that is unassuming, but when he is home the solidness he had behind the thermal imaging scope of a rifle gives way to lingering trauma that he tries to keep hidden. Sun-drenched and with a patch of stubble to match his Texas-sized grin, Cooper looks to share the same desire that drove Kyle to help his band of brothers. More importantly, though, it is how Cooper reacts when bullets aren’t being fired at him. He is never one to talk about himself or his family or what he feels. There is a moment when a wounded vet approaches him in an auto garage and he fumbles with how to respond. Considering how abundant PTSD is in today’s military it would be a benefit to the narrative to give more time to Kyle the Man, and not just Kyle the Warrior as most know him to be. Instead, a majority of his life as a husband and father and efforts to rehabilitate vets is a footnote when it should be just as important to a story about war.
By the time Eastwood reaches the conclusion, where we have Chris Kyle going from being an asset to his friends under fire abroad to helping shellshocked veterans at home, the underlined silence that follows a beautiful musical composition from the prolific Ennio Morricone seems creepy in its connotation. Ultimately, it echoes a sense of loss and how we are but a trigger pull away from being a memory.
American Sniper may not be a warts-and-all introspection of Chris Kyle’s humanity but the combined efforts of Clint Eastwood’s workmanlike direction and Bradley Cooper forges a quality picture that will appeal to older viewers and those with strong second amendment convictions.
Opening on Thursday, December 25, in select cities and expanding nationwide on January 16.
Director: Clint Eastwood Writer: Jason Hall, based on the book “American Sniper” by Chris Kyle with Scott mcEwen and Jim DeFelice Notable Cast: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Luke Grimes, Keir O’Donnell
Travis Leamons is one of the Inside Pulse Originals and currently holds the position of Managing Editor at Inside Pulse Movies. He's told that the position is his until he's dead or if "The Boss" can find somebody better. I expect the best and I give the best. Here's the beer. Here's the entertainment. Now have fun. That's an order!