'American Sniper': AFI Fest Review

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
Bradley Cooper muscles up to carry Clint Eastwood's rugged look at an Iraq War legend.

Bradley Cooper captures the sad, short life of the most prolific sniper in U.S. military history

A taut, vivid and sad account of the brief life of the most accomplished marksman in American military annals, American Sniper feels very much like a companion piece — in subject, theme and quality — to The Hurt Locker. Starring a beefed-up and thoroughly Texanized Bradley Cooper as we've never seen him before, Clint Eastwood's second film of 2014 is his best in a number of years, as it infuses an ostensibly gung-ho and patriotic story with an underlying pain and melancholy of a sort that echoes the director's other works about the wages of violence. Unlike The Hurt Locker, however, this Warner Bros. Christmas release should enjoy a muscular box-office career based on the extraordinary popularity of its source book by the late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, Cooper's star status and its “God, country, family” aspects that will draw that part of the public that doesn't often go to the movies.

The gun — along with its significance to the United States, past and present — has been Eastwood's most frequent co-star since the beginning of his career and has played a major role in most of his best films, from the Westerns and the Dirty Harrys to the war dramas. As the title suggests, a gun — or, more precisely, an extremely high-powered rifle — shares the screen with Cooper here, although it is not at all fetishized in the manner that weapons are in the book.

Initiated by screenwriter Jason Hall in conjunction with Kyle while the latter was still alive and before the publication of the book Kyle wrote with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice, the film is surprisingly different from the book in its focus and feel. The tome takes a sort of checklist approach to Kyle's life, especially his military career, and rarely dramatizes events in a visceral or exciting way. By contrast, the script tends to emphasize major hazardous episodes in each of the soldier's four tours of duty, which are staged with the requisite intensity and are interrupted by brief respites that illustrate Kyle's increasingly detached relationship with his wife and family.

There's real snap to the expository first 20 minutes that establishes Kyle's character as the son of a religious father who stressed the ever-threatening presence of evil, the virtues of aggression and fighting, and the supremacy of the hunt. The opening stretch also features a highlight reel of brutal Navy SEAL training (including the unadvertised activity of having darts thrown into one's naked back while drunk) and creates a warm impression of Kyle's boozy, teasing courtship with barroom pickup Taya (Sienna Miller).

Then it's Wham!, to Fallujah, where Kyle's mettle as a sniper is severely tested by his first challenge: taking out what appears to be a mother and son intent on blowing up a group of U.S. soldiers with a large grenade. So unerring is Kyle's aim and ability to spot ripe candidates for killing that he very quickly becomes commonly referred to as “The Legend.” When possible targets become scarce, Kyle joins the men assigned to the arduous task of clearing houses door-to-door in hopes of finding a despicable character called “The Butcher,” who, when seen in action, fully lives up to his nickname.

The urban environment in which much of the Iraq War was fought is evoked here with a pungent sense of the dust, smoke, filth and detritus of combat, along with the confusion and uncertainty that must have prevailed much of the time (exteriors were shot in Rabat, Morocco, as well as on an extensive town set). As shown here, there was no telling who or what might be behind any door, perched on any roof or behind the wheel of any vehicle. Kyle's first order of business as a sniper is to make the all-important decision of whether a potential target is a combatant or a civilian; he can be hauled off to face charges if he's wrong. But once he gets them in his sights, he, with almost unerring accuracy, pops them with one shot.

A bit disappointingly, there's no real discussion of what distinguishes Kyle from the rest, nor is the man's love for what he does emphasized to the extent that it is in the book. The politics of the war are completely off the table here, but there's never any question that Kyle and his relatively undifferentiated buddies are in Iraq on a mission they believe in because, as our sniper puts it, “There's evil here.”

After a quick visit to San Diego on the occasion of the birth of his and Taya's first child, Kyle's second tour is entirely devoted to the elimination of The Butcher. Brief but grisly torture marks this rough interlude, which numbs Kyle perhaps more than he realizes.

When he next returns home, Taya discharges a full round of on-the-nose complaints, such as “Even when you're here, you're not here” and “If you think this war isn't changing you, you're wrong.” While it at first appears that the home front difficulties between Kyle and Taya will receive something close to equal weight with the combat, they progressively become shortchanged to the point that Kyle's visits seem like obligatory, increasingly tense pit stops rather than occasions to really explore the extent of the soldier's psycho-emotional rearrangement and his wife's burden.

Feeling the compulsion to return, Kyle has a rougher time of it on his third and fourth tours of duty. The fighting has gotten nastier, Sadr City is a non-negotiable nightmare and the enemy now has a sniper nearly as talented as Kyle. Here, too, the film could have used a bit more detail, just a short scene or two in which the Legend indulges in a little shop talk, instructs a newcomer, explains how he does it. 

After an intense final gun battle descends into absolute chaos when enveloped by a massive dust storm (which visually summons up memories of the tsunami scene in Eastwood's 2010 feature Hereafter), Kyle announces that he's had enough. When all is said and done, he has spent about a thousand days in Iraq and recorded more than 160 official kills, although the actual figure was probably significantly higher.

Eastwood handles the tragic ending with a tact underlined with irony, creepiness and a sense of loss that echoes any number of his previous films. He might have gone deeper into the ways the war infected his subject and the struggles he faced after his final homecoming, but whatever the script ignores Cooper goes a long way toward filling in. His physical transformation — bull neck, puffier face, cowboy gait, thick Texas country accent — is one thing. And his skill with jokey banter serves him well in his early scenes with Miller and some of the guys. But nothing the actor has done before suggests the dramatic assuredness he brings to his way of detailing Kyle's self-control, confidence, coolness, genuine concern for his comrades-in-arms, compulsion to serve his country and ultimate realization that enough is enough, even of the thing he loves most, which is war.

Dark-haired and looking markedly different than in most of her previous films, Miller is best in the early stretch and seems a bit cheated by the one-dimensionality of her brief later scenes. Physically, the film is first-rate. Brighter than most of Eastwood's films, it benefits from mobile and intently focused cinematography by Tom Stern, highly realistic production design by James J. Murakami and Charisse Cardenas, propulsive editing from Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach, and a very spare music track; the sound of bullets and explosions says it all here.

Production companies: Mad Chance, 22nd & Indiana, Malpaso
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Luke Grimes, Jake McDorman, Cory Hardrict, Kevin Lacz, Navid Negahban, Keir O'Donnell
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenwriter: Jason Hall, based on the book by Chris Kyle with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice
Producers: Clint Eastwood, Robert Lorenz, Andrew Lazar, Bradley Cooper, Peter Morgan
Executive producers: Tim Moore, Jason Hall, Sheroum Kim, Steven Mnuchin, Bruce Berman
Director of photography: Tom Stern
Production designer: James J. Murakami, Charisse Cardenas
Costume designer: Deborah Hopper
Editors: Joel Cox, Gary D. Roach
Casting director: Geoffrey Miclat

Rated R, 134 minutes