Actor turned director Clint Eastwood is the closest thing modern Hollywood has to the craftsmen of the 1940s studio system. Effortlessly shifting between genres (a musical with Jersey Boys earlier this year, now a war movie) and producing work at a pace more prolific than filmmakers half his age, American Sniper is his latest entry in a series of character studies that examine the shifting psychosis of America and its War On Terror.
Starring Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle, whose memoir the film is based upon and written by Jason Hall, American Sniper charts his four tours of duty in Iraq after September 11th where he became the most deadly sniper in military history. While the film shows his evolution from young boy in a strict Bible belt household to Navy SEAL to celebrated, almost mythic, status among his brothers-in-arms, we also observe the seething tensions that develop below the surface when he’s not in a war zone.
Juxtaposed against the scenes of battle in Iraq are those of his wife, portrayed by Sienna Miller, who endures psychological duress at home, endlessly worrying about her soldier husband when he’s in the line of fire and equally distressed at his blockaded persona when he’s out. It’s in these quiet, reflective moments that American Sniper shines. Though the war scenes are deftly handled- especially a climactic fire fight on the fringes of an enveloping sandstorm that harrowingly exemplifies the helpless chaos of war – American Sniper is really about the singular fight. At first, full of good ol’ boy patriotic swagger, Cooper shifts into the pangs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and conveys a world of confusion, tension and unrealized aggression convincingly. He gives a tremendously interior performance.
Less successful, though, are the scenes between Cooper and Miller. Eastwood often works in simplistic brushstrokes, emanating a clear-eyed vision of core values. In American Sniper those messages are a bit too simple, reducing their marriage to a series of over dramatic conversations and well-trodden ideas concerning the emotional conflict of duty versus family. Their relationship, meant to heighten the stakes for Kyle in Iraq, end up serving as cliché checkpoints in the canon of distraught military marriages.
It’s an especially disappointing side of American Sniper when every other facet feels acutely honest and incisive. Each sniper mission depicted is expertly framed and edited, half inside the rifle scope and half outside to reveal the larger dynamics of a war torn landscape. Overall, <b>American Sniper</b> suffers from this same bifurcation, unable to blend the aspects of home and abroad into a completely compelling portrait.
American Sniper is currently playing in limited release and opens wide on January 16.