His directing eye still sharp at the age of 84, Clint Eastwood takes a bead on the figure of Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL whose prowess with a rifle during four tours of Iraq won him renown as ‘the most lethal sniper in US military history’.
Superbly played by a beefed-up Bradley Cooper in American Sniper, the thrilling and troubling biopic based on its subject’s bestselling memoir, Kyle is a gung-ho American patriot, a man raised by his father to divide the world into sheep, wolves and sheepdogs as we discover in flashbacks to his red-blooded Texan childhood. And it is as a sheepdog that he sees himself when he goes into combat as a sniper in Iraq, tasked with protecting his comrades by taking out the enemy with ruthless precision.
Those who line up in his crosshairs may even be women or children, but if he perceives them as an immediate threat to his brothers-in-arms then he has no compunction about pulling the trigger. His black-and-white, Manichean view of good guys and bad guys is such that none of his 164 confirmed kills troubles his conscience.
Or so he says. As portrayed by Cooper, his increasingly haunted eyes tell a different story. ‘If you think that this war isn’t changing you you’re wrong,’ his wife (Sienna Miller) tells him at one point when he is Stateside between tours, his growing emotional distance from his family painfully apparent. ‘You can only circle the flames so long.’
Eastwood doesn’t simply circle the flames but gets right into the heat of combat. And he is as unerring as his sharp-shooting protagonist when it comes to such scenes as Kyle’s ongoing duel with a rival sniper among the insurgents or a fierce firefight in the midst of a sandstorm, staging the action with gripping immediacy and clear-sighted accuracy.
Don’t go to the film expecting a nuanced approach to America’s foreign wars. American Sniper no more questions the US presence in Iraq than Kyle does. But watch it with open eyes and you will find it has much to say about masculinity and violence, trauma and denial, and America’s fatal romance with guns.
Certificate 15. Runtime 132 mins. Director Clint Eastwood.
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