Notching up 160 confirmed kills during the Iraq War, US Navy SEAL sniper, Chris Kyle became something of a celebrity. A bestselling autobiography and further renown followed his discharge from the army before Kyle was shot dead by a US Marine Corps veteran at a shooting range in 2013. Thousands attended his funeral in Texas with many more lining the procession route, paying their respects to a fallen warrior. A recent article in the Guardian poured cold water over some of the mythologising that has arguably arisen, describing Kyle as a racist and drew attention to some of the more unsavoury aspects of his memoirs. Bringing his startling and troubling story to the screen would require a deft touch then and, after Steven Spielberg left the project, the duty fell to Clint Eastwood; a man whose directorial style seems suitably economical and unfussy and yet an individual whose own political leanings have been at the forefront of much of his personal life for decades. Given the subject matter, this was always going to be interesting.
Somewhat of a shame then that American Sniper is, for the most part, a broadly apolitical film opting to steer clear of much of the wider ethical and legal arguments that continue define that conflict and indeed Kyle’s career. Eastwood’s vision of Kyle’s life seems to live in its own little bubble, rife with personal and internal struggles, but one which resolutely refuses to enter into any wider-ranging dialogue.
Kyle is, it must be said, played with absolute conviction by a frankly enormous Bradley Cooper who has piled on the muscle without completely losing all sense of emotional fragility. Eastwood meanwhile, has a commanding grasp of set piece action sequences, of which this film has plenty and the first of which we are dropped into at the film’s outset. Perched on a rooftop, Kyle shadows the rank and file of US Marines making their way through the rubble-strewn streets of Fallujah. Acting as all-seeing eye and guardian angel, Kyle spots an Iraqi mother and son making their way towards the column of soldiers with murderous intent. Kyle despatches them with precision, but not before Eastwood has teased every ounce of tension and urgency out of the scene in a thrilling and nervous opening.
Follow this with a cut back to Kyle’s Texas childhood in which he shows his proficiency for shooting by bagging his first deer and then an ethics lecture from his father which very much defines Kyle’s outlook from there on out.
His father informs him that it is his duty to protect those weaker than him; a philosophical lesson which Kyle appears to carry with him into the warzone of Iraq. We are no doubt that Kyle believes his actions are just: he is protecting his comrades and taking a righteous fight to an enemy he describes as evil. American Sniper’s chief failing, as it settles into an episodic tour-after-tour format, is that it never seeks to challenge, question or even dwell upon on what is at least a problematic modus operandi.
The combat scenes are exhilarating, tense and often heartbreaking and there’s little doubt that Clint Eastwood has a mastery of such large-scale carnage. Bradley Cooper continues to impress, nailing an intensive and dangerous-yet-genial demeanour and the film’s second half injects an element of personal distress for Kyle as the horrors of war begin to take their toll.
Yet for all Bradley Cooper’s excellent portrayal of bravado-wrapped instability, there’s still a lack context. It’s as if Client Eastwood has washed his hands of the politics of the piece. Considering the contentious nature of the war and the man at the centre of the drama, it’s a noticeable and disappointing choice.
Genre:Biography, Drama, Action Distributor:Warner Bros Release Date: 16th January 2015 (UK) Rating: 15 Running Time: 132 Minutes Director: Clint Eastwood Cast: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Kyle Gallner, Keir O’Donnell