Clint Eastwood’s second film this year, “American Sniper,” about the late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, is considerably better than his first, “The Jersey Boys.” As a piece of direction, it’s as taut as anything he’s ever done.
Bradley Cooper, carrying a load of added weight and a Texas accent a mile wide, commendably plays Kyle, the most accomplished sniper in US military history, with over 160 recorded kills through four tours of duty in Iraq. (The screenplay by Jason Hall was undertaken in conjunction with Kyle, who co-authored a bestselling book about his exploits before he was shot to death at a Texas gun range in 2013 by a Marine veteran. The veteran is now awaiting trial and was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.)
“American Sniper” shares some of the same faults and virtues as Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker,” which also focused on a soldier hardwired for war. (Although Kyle is a big supporter of the Iraq war, the movie avoids any overt politicizing). As long as Eastwood is showing Kyle in combat, which is a lot of the time, the film has a no-nonsense immediacy. Eastwood can charge these scenes with moral import as well, as in the sequence, early on, when Kyle has to make the decision to take out both a mother and her son as suspected grenade carriers. At his best, Eastwood can show us not only violence but its human consequences.
Away from the theater of war, at home with his wife (Sienna Miller) and family, Kyle feels unmoored. If the film had plumbed his psychological state with anything like the acuity of his marksmanship, we would have a masterpiece. But Kyle, the regular guy with super-honed killer instincts, remains an enigma. Miller’s role quickly degenerates into weepy-wife terrain, and Kyle’s re-entry into civilian life, where he endures PTSD for a time, is too sketchily drawn – and too easily resolved. Grade: B (Rated R for strong and disturbing war violence, and language throughout including some sexual references.)