It's a hell of a thing, killing a man, Clint Eastwood mournfully lectured in Unforgiven: "Take away all he's got, and all he's ever gonna have."
Eastwood reprises that Old West melancholy in American Sniper, with New West warfare in Iraq extending the killing to enemy women and children, if necessary. That grim scenario opens the movie, frames its first half, and weighs heavily on the shooter, U.S. Navy SEAL marksman Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history with more than 160 confirmed kills.
Bradley Cooper isn't the first actor you'd consider for such a macho role, making the impact of this portrayal more remarkable. The word "transformative" is tossed at Steve Carell's Foxcatcher performance, which is largely latex makeup. Cooper's is a more complete transformation, with convincing Texas swagger and twang, packing an extra 40 pounds of muscle and plumbing new dramatic depths.
Unlike many post 9/11 war movies, American Sniper goes easier on the gung ho, with a third act leavened by Chris' depressed denial, his "hurt locker" of stored regret. Eastwood is less concerned with action heroism than the consequences of deadly action, how it chips away at the living. American Sniper doesn't glorify what Kyle did, but like the angrier Born on the Fourth of July makes clear why he did it.
For Chris, it's a sense of patriotic duty that sends him at age 30 to enlist after the 9/11 attacks. His father taught him to shoot, imbuing him with a moral hierarchy; there are wolves, then there are lambs and sheepdogs obliged to protect them. Chris is a sheepdog, so it's inevitable that he's assigned "overwatch," picking off anyone who'd harm U.S. troops on the streets below.
Chris' body count and reputation grows, and maybe it is Eastwood's intention to make the action-overpacked midsection of his movie as tiresome as combat must be. The strain wears not only on Chris but his wife Taya (Sienna Miller), whose pregnancy during one of his four tours of duty leads to Eastwood's most tense set piece. In country, American Sniper isn't very different from the usual war mayhem. Stateside, Jason Hall's screenplay finds this warrior's essence, that nearly became a casualty of war.
The tragic irony of Chris' death — shot by a disturbed, fellow veteran he was trying to help — is only foreshadowed (with the movie's phoniest shot, its next-to-last). It's a respectful decision since American Sniper is based on his memoirs and nobody writes after dying. But it also suits Chris Kyle's legacy that death came from thin air, when least expected. It's a hell of a thing.
Contact Steve Persall at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.