Sometimes a movie gets defined, unfairly or not, by movies that came before it. “American Sniper” is an Iraq War movie, a genre so small it pretty much begins and ends with “The Hurt Locker.”
Thematically, both movies have a lot in common. At the center of both films is a man who finds himself strangely addicted to combat and unable to adjust when he returns to the home front.
“The Hurt Locker” unpacked these issues much more thoroughly and elegantly, which shouldn’t be surprising because it was entirely fictional. “American Sniper” is based on a real person and real events, which comes with its own pitfalls and restrictions; and it was directed by Clint Eastwood, who, quite frankly, doesn’t have time for any of your touchy-feely, namby-pamby naval gazing.
The real person in question is Navy SEAL sniper Chis Kyle, a clear-eyed Texan with more confirmed kills than any other soldier in U.S. military history.
Kyle is played with steely determination by Bradley Cooper, who buffed up and accented himself all the way to a Best Actor nomination (I would have tossed up Jake Gyllenhaal’s, Ralph Fiennes’ and David Oyelowo’s names before I got to his, but why quibble, he is very good here).
Kyle returns for tour after tour, putting undue pressure on his weepy bride Taya (Sienna Miller), who raises his children while he dodges bullets half a world away.
Eastwood leaves a lot on the table when the big, difficult questions come up, but when the bombs start exploding, this movie is locked in and purposeful.
The action in “American Sniper” is riveting and breathless, which works surprisingly well at slyly making the point that even the most politicized wars are decidedly apolitical once your boots hit the ground.
A climactic shootout in the middle of a sandstorm is particularly impressive and one of those set pieces that just might wind up being iconic.
The aspect of Kyle’s life that does get criminally glossed over is the work he does with traumatized veterans that rights the ship in his own life and ultimately results in a tragic, unexpected ending.
To see a tormented man we’ve spent all movie with conquering all of his demons in the space of a single montage is a bit of a copout.
At any rate, this is an effective war movie and while it doesn’t measure up to the lofty heights of something like “The Hurt Locker,” it is a well-told story that is worth telling. In this case, that is more than enough.
“American Sniper” is rated R for strong and disturbing war violence, and language throughout, including some sexual references.