**** (out of five)
Bradley Cooper gives an intricate, psychologically detailed performance as Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in US military history, in this cool, elegant biopic from Clint Eastwood, who was eighty-four when he directed it. Kyle was a slippery character. According to his autobiography, also called American Sniper, he was extremely proud of his lethal prowess, and of his “kill count”, which was officially pegged at 160 but which he claimed was 255. He was also fiercely single-minded in his perception of the Iraq War, which was his main playing field; he saw Iraqis as “animals” and “savages”, and there are those who see Kyle as, essentially, a racist serial killer who managed to get into the right profession at the right time.
The truth to someone like this is always complicated, but there is no doubt that Kyle suffered, to a degree perhaps less than many but to a degree nonetheless, some PTSD upon each of his Stateside returns (he did four tours). Like Jeremy Renner’s character in The Hurt Locker, with which American Sniper shares many similarities, Kyle was – and is shown as – someone who was pretty addicted to the thrill of battle. He was extremely good at his job, enjoyed being good at it (in his book he claimed to have “loved killing”) and lapped up the legendary status he held amongst his fellow soldiers. He was so good his unit gave him a symbol – that of the cartoon character “The Punisher” – and all adopted, stencilling it on their hardware, in an effort to frighten the opposition. It worked: Kyle had a huge bounty placed on his head by the enemy.
The film doesn’t present a racist serial killer, nor an arrogant psychopath, and it probably portrays Kyle as more humble than he was, but as a clinical examination of how a great soldier (and in particular a Navy SEAL) is made, what a sniper does, how the door-to-door searches that made up so much of the Iraq War worked, and of the intricacies of what may be thought of as relatively mild PTSD (but strong enough to be dangerous and debilitating), the film is winning on all counts. Like 2014’s Fury, it is more of a war film than an anti-war film; Kyle is our protagonist, we’re meant to like him, and he takes out Iraqis, and sometimes when he does, we’re kind of meant to cheer. Don’t forget that Eastwood is a deep Republican, and the film has that sensibility – and yet it’s neither insulting nor off-putting, and it’s not racist. It’s a serious story told with steely conviction, and if its politics are a little right of my comfort level, its obvious cinematic benefits are right in my wheelhouse.
Cooper is fantastic. His performance is totally precise. The gradations he and Eastwood have chosen to show – of Kyle’s character, personality and disease – are perfectly graded. We really get a sense of a full man, and if that isn’t exactly the man Chris Kyle was, it’s certainly an indelible movie character. Sienna Miller provides strong support as his wife Taya; beyond her, there are a bunch of dudes playing soldiers, who all do fine, if predictable, work. Which is probably how it is: amongst a lot of guys who are all a little alike, Chris Kyle obviously stood out.