Editor's note: This article is cross-posted at JohnHanlonReviews.com.
War movies often focus on battles over personalities. In great films like Lone Survivor (2013) and Saving Private Ryan (1998), some of the battle sequences are so real and devastating that it’s easy to get lost in them and lose focus on the individual soldiers trying to survive. Those films often attempt to show viewers what it must be like to be in the midst of an intense and devastating battle.
American Sniper, which only yesterday was nominated for six Academy Awards,is different.
It’s more of a character study than a war film with the main character being a Texan who joins the Navy SEALS and grows to become “the legend:” a military icon who was reportedly the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history.
Oscar-nominated Bradley Cooper plays Chris Kyle, the beloved war veteran whose service was well-known even before his autobiography was released several years ago. When the film begins, Kyle is a tough Southerner who loves his country, his girlfriend and his beer but something seems to change in him when the United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania are bombed. He sees something in the world and is angered enough to want to do something about it.
His journey leads him to the SEALS where, at 30, he stands as one of the oldest soldiers at camp. “I’m not like most men, sir. I don’t quit,” he tells one of his superiors when questioned about his age. During the feature’s first thirty minutes, Kyle slowly develops into a soldier as he trains and prepares for battle. Some of the training scenes may seem a bit obvious (especially if you’ve seen other films about going into battle) but they are only leading up to the important part: Kyle’s service overseas, which is handled gracefully by Clint Eastwood.
When Kyle becomes a sniper, he’s thankfully not presented as a gung-ho soldier wanting to make his mark in the military. He’s simply a patriotic man who wants to serve his country and save his fellow soldiers from the “evil” that exists out there. (If you question the existence of such evil, think about how crazed one must be to give a child a bomb and ask them to sacrifice their lives by murdering others.) Even though Kyle sees such evil as a sniper in Iraq, he always hesitates before shooting knowing that people can always change their minds about their decisions. Even when he becomes “a legend” serving his country on four tours of duty, Kyle’s humility always shines through. He’s a man with a job to do, he realizes, and he’s saddened by those whose lives he couldn’t save.
The heart of the film though lies back in the United States where Taya (Sienna Miller), Kyle’s wife, is caring for their children. When they meet, Taya is hesitant to date a military man but slowly welcomes Kyle, the rough-and-tumble patriot, into her world. But as she sees, military life is difficult and it’s hard not to understand Taya’s growing frustration when her husband seems to choose the military over her family time and again. Even though the relationship only comes alive when Kyle is at home, Eastwood makes it overshadow Kyle’s entire military career, showing the sacrifices families must make when one of their own is sent into a war zone.
When Kyle is away (and we see the two of them chat over the phone several times while he’s on a mission), Taya is alone and even when he’s home, he’s still thinking about protecting his friends overseas.
Unlike some of Eastwood’s recent projects (Jersey Boys and Hereafter come to mind), there’s a great subtlety to American Sniper. Kyle’s world is presented from his perspective but there are small hints and notes that there are larger issues at play. Soldiers talk to Kyle about their questioning the war itself while Kyle’s brother, a veteran himself, becomes overwhelmed by what he has to do overseas and because he lives in the shadow of “the legend” himself.
“You’re my hero, bro. Always have been,” the brother notes with a sadness and fear overwhelming his pained face.
There are some who argue that American Sniper is too simplistic in both its depiction of the war and of Kyle himself. During the opening scenes, I could agree but as the story grows and the world becomes more apparent, Cooper— in possibly his best performance to date— and Eastwood present a subtle but powerful depiction of an American soldier who, even as he leaves the Navy, never quits serving his nation.
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