In his gritty, 132 minute, R-rated, combat biography “American Sniper” producer & director Clint Eastwood treats the life of real-life protagonist Chris Kyle with unmistakable reverence. This tragic but heroic account of the deadliest sharpshooter in U.S. military history is compelling as well as propelling from fade-in to fade-out. Similarly, “A-Team” actor Bradley Cooper delivers a career best performance as the legendary Texas native who racked up 160 confirmed kills as a sniper during four tours of duty in Iraq.
Cooper packed on nearly 40 pounds so he could impersonate the beefy Kyle, and the actor assured “Men’s Health” magazine that the 6000 calories-per-day diet that he shoveled down constituted a challenge in itself. According to “People” magazine, real-life Navy SEAL sniper Kevin Lacz, who fought alongside Kyle, taught Cooper how to handle the sophisticated sniper weaponry. This sober but never simple-minded saga about the Iraqi war doesn’t so much ponder the polemical politics that prompted America’s participation in the fighting as much as its use as a historical setting. Indeed, Kyle was gung-ho about serving his country after suicide bombers had blasted the Marine barracks to rubble in Beirut in 1983.
Meantime, people who have read Kyle’s 2012 memoir may complain about some of the liberties that Eastwood and “Paranoia” scenarist Jason Hall have taken in their adaptation of the New York Times bestseller. Nevertheless, Eastwood has fashioned a realistic but patriotic film with a wrinkle or two that has mesmerized domestic audiences. For example, Kyle believed in what he was doing in Iraq while his younger brother abhorred not only the war but also the country. Eastwood celebrates the sacrifices that these citizens made without turning “American Sniper” into a rabble-rousing, Rambo fantasy.
“American Sniper” opens in Iraq with Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) sprawled belly down on a Fallujah roof-top checking potential threats to the Marines on the street below as they rattle one door after another in search of hostiles. Initially, Kyle spots a military-age, Iraqi native on a balcony. Chatting on a cell phone, he is watching the troops approach him. This suspicious fellow vanishes from Kyle’s sight. Moments later, a mother dressed like an angel of death in black emerges onto the street with her son. The mother hands her son a grenade, and they approach a tank with troops following it. Just as Kyle is scrutinizing these two civilians through his sniper scope, his spotter warns him that he could land in the military prison at Fort Leavenworth for shooting friendly civilians.
This issue arises more than once in “American Sniper.” Civilians in combat zones without a good reason created a quandary because our guys couldn’t be sure who was either sympathetic or unfriendly. Anyway, as Kyle caresses the trigger of his sniper rifle, Eastwood flashbacks to Kyle’s life as a Texas teen shooting his first deer. Eastwood and Hall furnish us with a montage of Kyle’s life along with his God-fearing father’s philosophy.
We see Kyle rush to the rescue of his younger brother Jeff on the playground at their elementary school as an obese bully beats up Jeff. At the dinner table, Kyle’s stern father Wayne (Ben Reed of “Scanner Cop”) categorizes humans into three types: predatory wolves, sheep, and sheepdogs. Brandishing his rolled up belt for emphasis, Wayne warns them that they will neither be predators nor sheep, but instead sheepdogs. Wayne promises to punish them for anything less. During his military service, Chris behaves like a sheepdog. Repeatedly, he risks his life to save his fellow Marines. Occasionally, “American Sniper” lightens up and lets you laugh with Chris about his romantic conquests both good and bad.
Aside from a protracted flashback sequence early into the action, “American Sniper” adheres to a conventional, straightforward storyline, chronicling the high points of Kyle’s experiences under fire. Comparatively, director Peter Berg’s “Lone Survivor” (2013), starring Mark Wahlberg, could serve as a companion piece to “American Sniper.” The big difference is Bradley Cooper’s SEAL team hero displays no compunctions about shooting kids, whereas Mark Wahlberg’s real-life SEAL team hero Marcus Luttrell couldn’t bring himself to kill an innocent goat herder’s son.
Meanwhile, “American Sniper” alternates between our hero’s harrowing battlefield exploits and his home front activities with his wife and family. Eastwood doesn’t immortalize Chris Kyle as an invincible, larger-than-life, titan. Actually, we watch in horror as Kyle unravels with each tour until he can no longer tolerate the traumatic pressure of combat. In this respect, “American Sniper” doesn’t pull any punches about the caliber of warfare that our guys had to contend with in Iraq. Mind you, it isn’t gripping in the same slam-bang sense that “Black Hawk Down” was, but “American Sniper” still qualifies as a tour-de-force, first-rate, action yarn. I don’t think Bradley Cooper will clinch the Best Actor Oscar, but you will know that Cooper takes his craft seriously. Aside from Cooper, the only other three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood character is Kyle’s long-suffering wife, Taya (British actress Sienna Miller of “Foxcatcher”), who goes toe-to-toe with him.
Primarily, Eastwood filters everything through Kyle’s perspective, and you don’t witness any of those standard-issue scenes with natty politicians and high-ranking officers arguing about strategy at headquarters. Eastwood rarely shifts the focus away from either Kyle with his family or Kyle with his buddies. Of course, Kyle and his buddies form a tightly knit group from their rigorous beachfront SEAL team training to the devastating combat in Iraq. Predictably, warfare dwindles their numbers. Particularly shattering is Kyle’s loss of his buddy Biggles (Jake McDorman of “Aquamarine”) who survives long enough to die in surgery. The camaraderie between Kyle and Biggles is sometimes hilarious as well as distressing. Kyle’s younger brother Jeff (Keir O’Donnell of “Wedding Crashers”) drifts into and out of the action. Jeff accompanies Kyle on the rodeo circuit in Texas and later follows him to the battlefield in Iraq. Altogether, “American Sniper” ranks as a memorable military actioneer with some salty dialogue.

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