American Sniper

(2015) ** R
132 min. Warner Bros. Pictures. Director: Clint Eastwood. Cast: Bradley Cooper, Luke Grimes, Sienna Miller, Kyle Gallner, Sammy Sheik.

/content/films/4761/1.jpgFor decades now, Clint Eastwood has cast his squinty eyes on violence, pondering when it is necessary and how it affects the individual. Iraq warrior biopic American Sniper, about the late Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, affords Eastwood another opportunity to wrestle with the way of the gun, but one that gets mired in military hero worship.

Based on Kyle's autobiography (with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice) American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, Eastwood's latest stars a bulked-up Bradley Cooper as the bronco-riding, beer-swilling, Texas-drawling good ol' boy who becomes “The Legend” ("a title you don't want," the screen Kyle avers) on his way to 160 confirmed kills behind the long barrel of an M40 rifle (Kyle estimated he killed almost 100 more).

Sniper covers Kyle's four tours of duty in Iraq (between 1999 and 2009), his meeting and winning his wife Taya (Sienna Miller), and the domestic spaces between and after his time in country. In principle, Sniper serves as an ode to conventionally understood manly skill, as evidenced by an early-childhood hunting-trip flashback in which Kyle's father affirms, "You got a gift" and confirmed by SEAL training and tour-of-duty episodes. Early and often, Kyle gets depicted as a God-fearing alpha American male motivated by vengeance for America and his fallen brothers in arms, and whose only fault may be loving his country too much (for the taste of his war-widowed family).

Along these lines, Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall insists upon the nobility of Kyle, showing how he takes no pleasure—and exhibits humility, not pride—in picking off his targets. Little evidence supports this view when it comes to the real Kyle, and some evidence points to the contrary (“I only wish I had killed more," he wrote). The real Kyle was given to boastful self-mythologizing; American Sniper is content to mythologize, while warming over tortured beats from the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker because, well, awards season. Above and beyond the script, a haggard, coiled, grunting Cooper does heroic service to Kyle's humanity, inhabiting his self-confidence and patriotic blinders, his post-traumatic stresses and creeping doubts.

In an effort to give Kyle's story dramatic shape, Hall trumps up Iraqi insurgent sniper Mustafa (Sammy Sheik) as a well-matched adversary to Kyle (though Mustafa only rates two sentences in Kyle's book, one of which is "I never saw him") and depicts Kyle as taking a personal interest and hands-on approach in the hunt for terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. These and all other Iraqis of "military age" get dubbed "savages" by Kyle (in the film's least varnished bit bit of dialogue), and indeed the Iraqi population gets represented entirely by bad guys trying to kill our Joes.

In his latter days back home, Kyle turns a corner into service for the V.A., but this and his strange subsequent fate get entirely short shrift despite being at least as important to the meaning of Kyle's life (and the meaning of any soldier's life) as the military service that absorbs most of the film's running time. As such, Sniper turns out to be perfunctory in exploring the human dimension of a complicated man and the thoughts and experiences so many American military families have struggled to come to terms with in recent years.

After a run of a half-dozen mushy efforts like Gran Torino and Hereafter, the octogenarian Eastwood musters surprisingly confident and robust direction, particularly in the taut military-action sequences, but Sniper's thematic tentativeness and misguidedly elliptical ending miss opportunities for deeper reflection.

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