AMERICAN SNIPER. Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Luke Grimes, Kyle Gallner. Directed by Clint Eastwood. 132 minutes.Rated MA15+ (Strong themes and violence).
Harrowing and intense, ‘American Sniper’ is a return to form for director Clint Eastwood, dominated by an immersive performance from star and producer Bradley Cooper as America’s most deadly sniper in military history.
The film opens in an abandoned Iraqi town during Chris Kyle’s first tour of the ‘War Against Terror’. A troop of marines moves through it slowly, clearing hostiles, while Navy Seal sniper Kyle keeps a vigilant eye from above. A woman suddenly appears with her son, carrying a Russian grenade and heading towards the convoy. The tension builds unbearably as Kyle faces an impossible choice – shoot a potentially friendly child, or let his comrades be killed. We cut away with the decision still lingering. Editors Joel Cox and Gary Roach display a sure hand in ratcheting up the pressure, allowing us to dwell in the split-second calls of the military man. The sound design is equally impressive, allowing stillness and sudden flurries of action to dominate in turn, and displaying a fine mix between diegetic and more non-literal soundscapes.
The cut takes us out of the warzone and into a flashback to Kyle’s youth. Brought up by his tough love favouring and heavily Christian father, he is introduced to hunting from a young age. All grown up, Kyle is a professional cowboy, riding steers and broncos on the Texan circuit with his brother. One night, some news footage of an anti-USA terrorism attack inspires him to enlist, and he completes his Navy Seal training in a montage similar to that at the start of ‘Lone Survivor’. Celebrating at a bar, he meets Taya (Sienna Miller), and the pair fall in love. A chilling scene has them watching the horror of 9/11 on the news, and following their wedding, Kyle is off to Iraq for his first tour.
Playing Kyle, Cooper is totally lost inside a lump of muscle gained for the role, and hidden behind his clipped Texan inflections. Magnetic yet impermeable, Cooper delivers a career highpoint in this his passion project, and conveys his struggles when making his horrific choices with minute facial twitches. Opposite him, Sienna Miller delivers strong support, playing Taya as a volatile character, befitting her self-description as a woman who is always attracted to the ‘wrong guys’.
As his four tours progress, Kyle makes a name for himself as a legend of sorts, notching up the most confirmed kills of any American soldier in history. Though his targets are largely one-dimensional, screenwriter Jason Hall has intelligently focused on Kyle’s battle with enemy sniper Mustafa as a framing device. As his friends fall about him, this game of cat and mouse provides the glue for what could have otherwise been an aimless series of warfare excerpts. That said, it feels as though his recovery from his PTSD is largely glossed over, and could have provided some fascinating viewing.
Director Eastwood has a steady grasp on the material, allowing the tours of Iraq and his life at home to begin to blend as Kyle loses his grasp on their separation. Equal parts tragedy and a celebration of a hero, the patriotic undertones suit his directorial style, and it has revived his (recently flat) run as a filmmaker. Director of photography Tom Stern has given the Iraqi scenes a nice, sun-saturated look, and the production design of the Iraqi sets is impeccable, genuinely claustrophobic through Kyle’s eyes yet sprawling and lived in.
Nominated for a tidy handful of Oscars recently, ‘American Sniper’ is a strong blend of entertainment, prestige and message. A must for fans of the modern war genre, this may give new life to both Eastwood’s career and the genre of Iraq-centric war films which audiences have previously cooled on.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out January 22.