War has long been a topic rife with the kind of harrowing stories and grand spectacles for film makers to portray in the larger than life world of the silver screen. World War Two is still revisited almost annually, even seventy years later, offering up tales of sacrifice and heroism. Audiences have been treated to darker fare when it comes to films about Vietnam, though that’s not always the case. And now, in the almost fourteen years that have followed that fateful day in September, we’ve entered a different age of war films: an age of dramatic realism. With American Sniper, director Clint Eastwood tackles not only covers the difficulties that some servicemen have returning home (a theme he touched on with 2006’s Flags of Our Fathers), but also the potentially overwhelming desire to return to the front.
From the very first frames, American Sniper is a film that demands viewers’ attention, not just by plunging us into the heart of the conflict, but by bringing it to a terrible and singular clarity through the scope of sniper Chris Kyle’s rifle. Though I mean no offense to films such as Black Hawk Down or Lone Survivor, believe me when I say that – unlike them – this is not a film in which bullets are sent flying and quickly forgotten about. On the contrary: each target acquired and each round spent is accompanied by a series of excruciating choices on the uncertain battleground wherein Chris finds himself. The results are nail-bitingly extreme. So much so, in fact, that when the narrative takes Chris down from his sniper’s perch and onto the ground with the general infantry temporarily, it’s hard not to feel like the film strays from the core idea that makes American Sniper so enthralling. Still, it’s Chris’ trips stateside between each of his grueling four tours that begin to feel truly alien as the film progresses, and his distance from his wife and his home begins at unsettling and only worsens from there. It’s these sorts of scenes that make me wish we had seen more of Chris’ recovery process in his post-service years and other segments – particularly a few early scenes of his childhood – could have been shortened or even omitted to make room.
Personally, I’m appalled that American Sniper has been entirely snubbed by the Golden Globes (although I expect it to get its fair share of Oscar buzz). Bradley Cooper is fantastic, showing a completely different side of himself as he all but disappears into the character of Chris Kyle. Through Cooper, we feel each shot taken – the gravity, the consequences, the uncertainty – and all of that again as he ventures home to a world that hasn’t stopped moving while he’s been away. Sienna Miller turns in a very solid performance as Chris’ wife Taya; an outsider looking in, almost even moreso than the audience. Miller is only given so much to do, and most of it is completely contextualized by Cooper’s scenes, but she has one note to hit and she knocks it out of the park. Director Clint Eastwood also makes his presence felt in a big way. Midway through American Sniper it struck me that this white-knuckle ferocity was directed by an octogenarian, by which I simply mean that Clint hasn’t lost his stride or any of his skill behind the camera.
American Sniper is just as much about the war waged in a man’s soul as it is about deadly confrontation. It’s gritty, it’s raw, and it asks audiences to rectify the horrors of war with the life that comes afterwards. It may be sorely lacking from award contention (though, again, I expect that will change) but you’ll be doing yourself a disservice if you miss this one. [8.5/10]