Right into the crosshairs, as a rifle takes lethal aim at a mother and child.
That’s how closely Clint Eastwood draws us in, and seeks to make us complicit, in the opening scene of American Sniper, his effective but not artful new war drama, nominated Thursday for six Academy Awards.
Sharpshooter Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), a Navy SEAL in Iraq tasked with protecting U.S. Marines on ground patrol, is perched atop a ruined building, attentively eyeballing a suspicious scene below, his finger sweating on the trigger.
A woman and her son are holding something — is it a grenade? — as the Marines approach. What should Kyle do? What would you do?
The viewer might hesitate, as Kyle admits he momentarily did in the autobiography the film is drawn from. But it was his first kill of the 160 he’d be credited for in four tours of duty in Iraq, a tally that made him the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history.
For him, it was all about protecting Americans from “savages,” which is what Kyle and his brethren called Iraqi insurgents. Kyle was known as “The Legend” for his rifle prowess.
“It was my duty to shoot, and I don’t regret it … I only wish I had killed more,” he wrote.
There are similarly no shades of grey in Eastwood’s American Sniper, apart from the relentlessly dull streetscapes of such Iraqi hot zones as Fallujah and Sadr City, where Kyle and his fellow soldiers roamed.
Chris Kyle was no saint, as his book makes plain. He was a hellraiser stateside who learned discipline and found meaning in Iraq. A proud Texas cowboy, he was raised by his daddy — seen in flashback — to separate people into three categories: sheep, wolves and sheepdogs.
Kyle saw himself as the sheepdog, saving the sheep from the wolves — and by extension keeping America safe for his family and other families.
That’s fine by Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall, who may have doubts about the Iraqi War itself but who have none whatsoever about the need to preserve the lives of the American men and women fighting in it.
The story they tell is potent and involving, easily Eastwood’s best film since Letters from Iwo Jima in 2006. That movie, arguable Eastwood’s masterpiece and a companion to his earlier Flags of Our Fathers, sought to tell a fully rounded Second World War saga. It looked at Pacific combat from the Japanese side as well as the American one.
American Sniper isn’t interested in the other side. From its perspective, there is only one story worth telling: that of the good-guy Americans, who must defend themselves and each other against shifty Iraqis who seek to kill them at every turn. It’s a lot like The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning 2008 drama of U.S. bomb-disposal experts in Iraq.
Suspense is ratcheted up through a composite character, an Olympic-level sharpshooter on the Iraqi side known as Mustafa (Sammy Sheik). He’s every bit as good as Kyle and possibly better, as he illustrates by coldly targeting any and every U.S. soldier he can draw a bead on.
The hunt for Mustafa adds a thriller narrative to American Sniper, as do scenes where SEALs and Marines have to fight their ambushers.
Eastwood strives to add more depth to the film by showing the emotional toll Kyle’s duty takes on his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) and their young children. Gone for months at a time, Kyle returns home with his heart racing and his mind still at war.
“Even when you’re here, you’re not here,” a worried Taya tells him.
Kyle is easy to root for, at least the version we see on screen. The likable Cooper bulked up and acquired a Texas drawl to play him and, like Eastwood, he does well by the man, making him into more than just a stone-cold killer.
In a scene where Kyle is showing his son how to hunt, just as his dad taught him, he reminds the lad that “it’s a heckuva thing to stop a beating heart.”
If you compare Cooper’s performance with interview clips of Kyle available on YouTube, the actor clearly managed both to get both sides of the soldier: the killing machine and the good ol’ boy family man.
Miller does a remarkable job of presenting Taya, too, although her screen time is limited. The film serves her far better than it does most of Cooper’s male co-stars, who as Kyle’s fellow soldiers amount to little more than a mass of gung-ho stereotypes.
This is Chris Kyle’s story, as Kyle wanted it told, like it or not. Details of his life after he left active war duty in 2009 are just a few clicks away.
The message of American Sniper? There really isn’t one, apart from Eastwood’s career-long fascination with taciturn men called upon to do a dirty but necessary job well.
Eastwood long ago physically retired his anti-hero avengers, characters like “Dirty” Harry Callahan and The Man With No Name. But they’re still very much on his mind, as is his belief that sometimes, a good man just has to pull the trigger.
And you don’t have a problem with that, do ya, punk?