★★★½ out of four stars
Clint Eastwood carried guns for generations onscreen. As a filmmaker he sees male heroism as a question, not an answer. Behind the camera he makes stories that focus on painful, alienated men. There were blue-collar Bostonians scarred by an abusive past in “Mystic River,” and views of war punishing a nation’s own soldiers in his World War II duo “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters From Iwo Jima.”
“American Sniper,” Eastwood’s 37th film as a director, is his darkest, tightest and most morally ambiguous drama since he shot the western dead with “Unforgiven.” It is a rich study of combat violence without a moment of jingoism or propaganda. Its central focus is the psychological wounds that haunt a top U.S. marksman from the battlefields of Iraq to his Texas family home.
The film is equal parts biography and war film, with its protagonist not a tightly focused portrait but a metaphor about what happens to countless veterans. It dramatizes the life of the late Chris Kyle (played by a bulked-up Bradley Cooper), the deadliest sniper in U.S. history.
Cooper, an actor known for emphatic and memorable dialogue, delivers a deeply felt and moving performance as the strong, silent Kyle. We meet him at an aimless period in his youth. Although he was a good rifleman since childhood and a strong rodeo rider, he was directionless until two things happened. He married Taya Renae Kyle (Sienna Miller). And on Sept. 11, 2001, he decided to join the elite Navy SEAL program to defend his country. (Kyle was actually a two-year Navy enlistee by that point, but Eastwood’s film, like many, compresses history into convenient dramatic form.)
Exhausting training matures Kyle from awkward, wandering galoot to one of the nation’s finest fighters. In his thinking, there are three types of people in the world. The sheep are blind to the true nature of the world. They are endangered by the wolves, and need protection from sheepdogs — the U.S. military’s warriors.
When his first armed tour begins just weeks into the second U.S. invasion of Iraq, Kyle faces a life-or-death crisis. On a rooftop in Nasiriya, he holds a woman and little boy on the battered town’s sidewalk in his rifle scope. If they are hostiles hiding explosives beneath their clothing, they could kill patrolling SEALs. If he shoots and he’s wrong, the fatal mistake could end his career. His decision led him to four tours in Iraq and 166 confirmed kills.
Eastwood is sympathetic toward veterans, critical of what combat does to them. He powerfully stages the war’s shootouts, standoffs, the crackle of gunfire and struggles against a rival Syrian-born shooter as lethal as Kyle. The film is stunningly shot by cinematographer Tom Stern, an Eastwood regular for a decade. The grand plan of the combat is never quite in focus, but emotional wounds are the story’s linchpin.
Kyle is proud to defend his nation but never exultant. What he does touches him like a waking nightmare. When he has his first young targets in his sights, the film cuts back to his own childhood, hunting with his father. In Iraq, Kyle can’t keep his thoughts from returning home. Back in Texas he’s pulled again and again to Middle East battles. Even a testy argument with his wife during a routine drive stirs up Kyle’s anxiety about a hostile car chase. This is the face of collateral damage.