Virtually no one saw Trouble With the Curve, so the last image that most people have of octogenarian actor/filmmaker Clint Eastwood is him at the 2012 GOP convention, losing an argument with an empty chair. Therefore, there was good reason to fear the worst with his adaptation of American Sniper, the biography of deceased Iraq veteran Chris Kyle, who was known as the deadliest sniper in American military history.
So what a fantastic surprise that rather than an uncritical testament to the might of the armed forces (Heartbreak Ridge 2, say), Eastwood delivers this complex, conflicted and profoundly moving look at the military machine, and the toll it takes on the soldiers who keep getting shoveled back into the fire.
By my own admission, I'm not a fan of Clint Eastwood the director; I've never been a fan, but American Sniper is a great film. It's Eastwood's best movie (so far), and there is such a steely visual and narrative confidence here where I once saw the perfunctory and obvious, that it practically forces me to reevaluate everything I thought I knew about him as a director. American Sniper possesses the sweep and scope of Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter, but very little of that movie's romantic grandeur. Eastwood is after something smaller and more personal. While Cimino turned the Vietnam War experience into myth, here Eastwood undermines the legend of a contemporary American warrior even as he is creating it.
In American Sniper, we get a man — and by extension, a nation — whose entire sense of self-worth is dependent on his image as a gun-toting protector of the weak. Bradley Cooper stars as Kyle, a Texas-bred cowboy whose upbringing mixed firearms, family, religion, patriotism and personal destiny in a way that would prove indelible. A flashback sequence to Kyle's childhood is the single best thing that Eastwood has ever done, and he seemingly channels the simple intensity of Nick Ray or Phil Karlson for this precise and penetrating piece of filmmaking.
Under the threat of the belt, Kyle's father teaches him that there are three types of people in the world: sheep, the wolves that prey on them, and the sheepdogs that protect the sheep from the wolves by any means necessary. Kyle spends the rest of his life trying to live up to the ideal of the sheepdog, eventually joining the Navy SEALs and distinguishing himself as a marksman. However, when the film finally circles back to the opening sequence in Iraq, we see Kyle notch his first kill by gunning down a woman and her child. The wanton bloodshed that Kyle encounters in Iraq challenges his self-identity as a protector, and he is never more paralyzed by duty and doubt than when he returns home to his family.
As Kyle, Cooper continues a string of strong and sadly underrated performances (he was the best part of David O. Russell's American Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook, and did excellent work in compromised movies like Guardians of the Galaxy and The Place Beyond the Pines). Here, he's insanely beefed up but also subtle and dignified. Cooper doesn't get big, grandstanding speeches or monumental breakdowns — Kyle carries the war inside him, not on his sleeve, so Cooper has to suggest massive emotional turmoil while retaining a placid and determined demeanor.
Unfortunately, the intellectually reductive attack dogs of "awards season" have already gone after American Sniper. Many of the attacks have focused on factual holes in Kyle's story, but historical inaccuracy doesn't make a biopic bad any more than scientific accuracy made Interstellar good.
Even worse, Eastwood's film has been positioned as the red-state opponent to Ava Duvernay's blue-state Selma. When American Sniper nabbed a Producers Guild Award nomination ahead of Selma, Indiewire called it "a victory for steak eaters." The not-so-subtle implication: A vote for Selma is a vote for civil rights and a vote for American Sniper is a vote for guns and war.
That's insane. If a film is worth no more than the sum of its subject matter, then the pro-literacy, anti-Holocaust, humanist treacle-fest The Book Thief is a stone-cold cinematic masterpiece, and that's not a world worth protecting by anyone.