Film review: American Sniper

Some spoilers.

American Sniper set January box-office records this past weekend as it went into wide release, after the initial limited release that allowed it to qualify for its six Academy Award nominations. By the end of the holiday weekend, the film registered more than $100 million in admissions, an unheard-of amount for an R-rated war film. Its success comes from powerful performances, adept direction, but mostly from the compelling story of the late Chris Kyle (a beefed up Bradley Cooper), the most deadly sniper in US history. Clint Eastwood tells a gripping tale of heroism, dedication, and the costs that survivors of all kinds must endure.

What this film is not is an American version of Nation’s Pride, the ersatz movie-within-a-movie seen in Inglorious Basterds. Comedian Seth Rogen made the comparison on Twitter this weekend, probably to his everlasting regret, but it’s not remotely the same thing. In Quentin Tarantino’s movie, the propaganda film gets cheers for every person shot (shown in a film that practically fetishes vengeance itself, like every other Tarantino movie). In American Sniper, no one is cheering the shots, not even Kyle himself, who sees it as a means to an end rather than the end itself. “I was just protecting my guys — they were trying to kill our soldiers,” Kyle tells a doctor after his final tour, when he clearly has trouble adjusting to life back home. “The thing that haunts me,” Kyle says in maybe the most revealing quote of the film, “are all the guys that I couldn’t save.” The film begins with Kyle — and the audience — feeling horror over the decision Kyle has to make in his first call in combat, which sets the tone for the rest of the film.

American Sniper is not a gung-ho endorsement of the war. It takes an agnostic approach to the politics of the war, much the same way The Hurt Locker did on its way to a Best Picture Oscar. We see American troops in Iraq questioning the point of the war; Kyle’s own brother, returning after a tour in the Marine Corps, offers a particularly pungent and concise explanation of how he feels about Iraq, to Kyle’s puzzlement. We see a family of a fallen comrade ask the same questions, and find out that the fallen comrade had already begun expressing them in letters back home. American Sniper is no easy ride on a jingoistic bandwagon, no matter what Rogen or others think.

Kyle doesn’t voice those doubts, but it’s clear early on that he’s not driven by politics. In a flashback to his childhood, Kyle recalls what his father taught him about the world being divided between sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs who defend the former against the latter. Eastwood gets to the heart of what drives Kyle and his determination to keep returning to Iraq. Kyle enlists after the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa and seeks combat after 9/11 to defend his country, but he keeps going back to protect his fellow combat troops. That was the motivation every time he pulled the trigger — not sport, not glory, and not politics. Like most men called to combat, Kyle fought to protect his comrades.

Where the film particularly excels is its depiction of Kyle’s struggles through his deployments, how he keeps drifting farther from his wife Taya (Sienna Miller), and how engaging with his fellow veterans after his fourth tour finally brings him back to his humanity. Kyle transfers his protective impulses from the front in Iraq to those comrades still struggling to recover as well. Kyle ended up giving his life in that effort, and the end of the film depicts his funeral procession and memorial service for which audience members should come prepared with tissues. It’s a story that isn’t limited to one American sniper, but hundreds of thousands of veterans of this long war regardless of their politics or enthusiasm for the policies which took them into combat.

Cooper snagged a Best Actor nomination for his sensitive and realistic portrayal of Kyle, and Miller probably deserved one for her portrayal of Taya. Eastwood got passed over for a Best Director nod, but American Sniper ended up with six nominations, half of them technical. The rest of the cast delivers realistic performances, especially the wounded veterans who play themselves in the last act. (Our friend Navid Negahban has a substantial part, too.) Eastwood delivers a nuanced, humanizing look at Kyle and combat veterans in general, in a way that must be seen on the big screen. On the Hot Air scale, American Sniper gets a five:

  • 5 – Full price ticket
  • 4 – Matinee only
  • 3 – Wait for Blu-Ray/DVD/PPV rental or purchase
  • 2 – Watch it when it hits Netflix/cable
  • 1 – Avoid at all costs

American Sniper is rated R for strong and disturbing war violence, and language throughout including some sexual references. It realistic and graphic depiction of combat violence makes it inappropriate for all but older and more mature teens, and certainly not for children.

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