‘American Sniper’ — War at a price

Published 12:29 am Saturday, January 24, 2015

Critic’s Corner
By Chuck Lilley

“Hollywood finally got one right,” is high praise offered by several Iraq War veterans after viewing Director Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper,” a biopic film of former Navy Seal, Chris Kyle, the most highly decorated sniper in United States military history.

While the film’s combat visuals are abundant and realistic (Eastwood enlists former Navy Seals as set consultants), the sobering “American Sniper” is anything but a predictable, John Wayne shoot-em-up. Eastwood and Cinematographer Tom Stern (“Grand Torino,” “Million Dollar Baby”) intermittently peel back the veneer of combat to expose the emotional toll of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) on returning soldiers and their families.

Much like his 1992 Academy Award-winning Western, “Unforgiven” (Best Picture), Eastwood skillfully handles the complexities of a conflicted, central character. Both the fictional William Munny in “Unforgiven” and the real-life Chris Kyle in “American Sniper” possess a simple, straight-forward sense of right and wrong as justification for their lethal actions. Each is portrayed as a professional killing machine, entirely comfortable within their death-defying wheelhouses. Both, however, are far less proficient when confronted with family repercussions wrought by professional absences.

In one especially powerful scene that underscores Eastwood’s “less is more” film-making philosophy, Chris Kyle (actor Bradley Cooper) sits alone atop a barstool trying to collect himself from the strain of combat before he confronts a needy wife and faces his responsibilities as a caring father.

Writer Jason Hall’s script has been nominated in the Best Adapted Screenplay category for the upcoming Academy Awards. His in-depth focus on the difficulties of post-wartime adjustment by many veterans is similar to two memorable award- winning films, “Coming Home” (1978) and “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946). Before writing his screenplay and prior to Kyle’s tragic 2013 death, Hall read Kyle’s best-selling novel “American Sniper,” and spent time with the author and his family in Midlothian. Texas. During these visits Hall witnessed the familial struggle that would provide the underpinnings for the screenplay. The scriptwriter does take some liberties with historical events when he creates ongoing conflict between American sniper Kyle and his enemy counterpart. The dueling sniper scenes are reminiscent of Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 2001 film, “Enemy at the Gates.”

Cooper (“Silver Linings Playbook,” “American Hustle,” “The Hangover”) delivers his best dramatic performance to date, and nails his part as the tough-minded, but family-oriented Texan, Chris Kyle.The bearded, bulked-up actor (Cooper gained 30 pounds for the role — Chris Kyle was six-feet five and a muscular 240 pounds.) bears a remarkable resemblance to Kyle, and his slow Texas drawl and dry wit are likewise similar. Cooper is totally immersed as the highly proficient sharpshooter when he expresses no regrets over his 160 recorded enemy kills (“I only wish I could have shot more to save lives”). Even better are his scenes when symptoms of PTSD slowly penetrate his steely exterior. Cooper is once again knocking on the door for Best Actor in a Leading Role category at this year’s Academy Awards. This should be his year.

As one of the few females within the film, Sienna Miller (“The Girl,” “Foxcatcher”) plays Kyle’s beleaguered spouse, Taya. While her screen-time is limited by Hall’s script, Miller nonetheless makes the most of her critical supporting role. Unfortunately the one-dimensional part adds little perspective towards the intelligent Kyle’s four difficult deployment choices over a 10-year period while his marriage disintegrates. How the real-life Taya Kyle held her marriage together considering that the divorce rate of Navy Seals is close to 90 percent, could have been better explored by script-writer Hall and would have provided more substance to Miller’s character and greater audience understanding of Chris Kyle.

Prior to making the film, both co-producers Eastwood and Cooper met with Kyle’s father to re-assure him that their film would “not do anything to disrespect his son.” When recently asked about the film, Wayne Kyle would only intimate that Cooper had done a fantastic job in playing his son, But added that Chris Kyle poignantly wished the number of American lives that he had saved could have been recorded, instead of the recorded 160 enemy lives that he extinguished.

The R-rated (language, brief nudity and brief violence) American Sniper has experienced the largest box office opening for a drama in cinema history. It is a sobering look at the intensity of combat, the impact of PTSD on families, and is a highly recommended reminder of the many sacrifices that our veterans voluntarily make to protect our freedoms.


Chuck’s rating: Four and a half thumbs up (out of five)