BY VINCENT ABBATECOLA
After Clint Eastwood’s latest contributions to war cinema in 2006, “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima,” both companion-piece World War II films, he returns to the genre with “American Sniper,” starring Bradley Cooper.
The film follows the assignments of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (Cooper), considered the deadliest sniper in the history of the U.S. military. Kyle is a Texan who spends his time prior to joining the service as a cowboy in the rodeo. After watching news coverage of the 1998 United States embassy bombings in Nairobi, he enlists in the Navy SEALs, where he soon becomes a sniper.
After the 9/11 attacks, he is deployed to Iraq. During his four tours of duty, Kyle becomes more and more accustomed to fighting overseas and grows burdened by the thoughts of war during his time at home.
In what is Bradley Cooper’s most dramatic performance to date, he successfully shows us how the war is changing his character. As a SEAL who quickly becomes a top sharpshooter, Cooper shows in his eyes and facial expressions how he processes the moral dilemmas he faces when positioned behind a gun. We can sense everything that is going through his mind as he decides whether or not to pull the trigger on certain targets, especially in the suspenseful opening scene.
Kyle calls to mind Jeremy Renner’s role from “The Hurt Locker,”a character who can’t seem to pull his mind away from the field of battle and eventually has some trouble adjusting to a normal life once he’s taken out of the danger he has become accustomed to. By the time Kyle is ready to go home and calls his wife to tell her, you can easily perceive the emotional toll the war has had on him.
With all of this, Cooper powerfully offers us a look into the psyche of his character and the changes that the war caused. Sienna Miller, who plays Chris’wife Taya, has a strong presence as a military wife and exemplifies the challenges and heartache that a loved one experiences when someone close to them is fighting overseas.
The screenplay by Jason Hall, which is based on an autobiography by Chris Kyle, Scott McEwen, and Jim DeFelice, transitions between Kyle’sfour tours of duty and his family life, so we’re able to see how he functions as a SEAL and a family man, and we see how the two sides of his character process the war. The story serves as a study of Kyle as he grapples with his hunger to serve his country and task of having to assimilate back into civilian life whenever he returns from a tour.
With the time that the story spends to focus on Kyle at war, I do wish, however, that the film used some more time to concentrate on his family and the effects that the war had on his home life, both in between his tours and at the end of his time overseas. The few scenes near the end of the film in which Kyle attempts to transition to living at home again are especially compelling because we see what the war has done to him, both emotionally and mentally
After Eastwood’s last three efforts as a director were disappointing, “American Sniper” shows the icon in his best directing form since “Invictus.”In the segments that take place during the war, Eastwood provides several scenes of high tension, particularly the opening minutes and a thrillingly shot, climactic sandstorm near the film’s end. In the homeward segments, the drama that Eastwood constructs between Kyle and his wife reveals how the former’s time overseas is impacting them both.
Despite a few previous directorial missteps, Eastwood shows that he still has the ability to make a great movie, and after this summer’s “Jersey Boys,”that’s a considerable relief.
Final grade: A-