American Sniper

It happens most times I see a Clint Eastwood movie: I forget it’s a Clint Eastwood movie until his “Directed by” credit appears at the end. Last time, I was disappointed. This time, I was overjoyed. Well done, homeboy!

The simplest way to describe this movie is something like… a slightly more uplifting version of The Hurt Locker. But more complicatedly, this movie embraces the darkness, revels in the emotional turmoil, whereas The Hurt Locker‘s was built on macho avoidance. Or at least that’s how I remember it. In any case, I only make this comparison to prepare people who haven’t seen it yet. It’s not an uplifting movie by any means. It’s a hard one to watch, but it is damn inspirational.

I decided to write this review today, because in a few hours, I’m going to see Bradley Cooper do something else fantastic, in “The Elephant Man,” on Broadway. Since seeing American Sniper last week, I’ve been on a B.Coop kick. I’ve always loved him, but I revisited Silver Linings Playbook the other night and am just continually amazed by his depth and breadth. I was chatting with a friend the other day, who brought up how he sort of suffers from Brad Pitt syndrome (ie, being too beautiful to be taken seriously as an actor). But I really don’t think so. Pitt is a really good actor, but Cooper is a really great one. Pitt maybe doesn’t trust himself enough to do a romantic comedy. (Can you think of one he’s done? Because I can’t.) Cooper, on the other hand, keeps showing us that he can do anything. He’s got the presence to be in blockbusters (The Hangover), the douchiness to be in big comedies (Wedding Crashers), the heartthrobbiness for aforementioned romance (SLP), he’s been in action movies I haven’t seen, he voiced a freaking raccoon in Guardians, and he boinked Michael Ian Black in WHAS and made out with Betty White on Sunday. He’s the best.

Back to the serious stuff, sorry. His portrayal of Chris Kyle is phenomenal. Pardon my ignorance, but this is the second movie in a row in which I’m writing about a true story I was blind to before. I vaguely remember hearing stories about Kyle a couple years ago, and am sad to say I didn’t pay closer attention at the time. And as I said about The Imitation Game, I’m so glad this movie was made. Kyle’s story is one that needs to be told on a grand scale, so that we understand the glories of war, and the rampant fucked-upedness of PTSD. It’s wonderful that he was able to overcome it, but it’s tragic that someone else wasn’t, and that led to his death.

It took a little bit of time for me to warm up to Cooper’s Kyle. He’s a distanced, polite guy from the start, raised with Southern manners and confidence but always a little more straightforward than his brother growing up and his comrades in the war. His descent into wartime focus and, thus, PTSD, is hard to parse, because it’s ambiguous how much of that madness is his own, and how much was caused by what he saw. Cooper plays it subtle: the descent is slow and creepy, masked by his unparalleled focus and talent. He was the best sniper in the armed forces, and the most humble, too; it seems impossible that someone that talented could ever feel anything other than deep pride. He also comes out of it gradually, embracing his wife more and fathering his children the way he always intended. He’s an easy person to root for, even if his mind is difficult to understand. He’s two people sharing one body.

On the home front, Sienna Miller is graceful and understated as his wife, Taya, so much so that I didn’t even recognize her. I tried for a bit to figure it out, but then I just let her performance take over. I want to know more of her story, more of how she was able to handle watching her husband leave FOUR times to head into a place of almost-certain death, then return a shell of a human. What a life. Out on the battlefield, the actors playing Kyle’s fellow SEALs were also a lot more understated than what I expected. War movies do tend to glorify battle, and that argument has been made for this movie as well, but I never got the sense from American Sniper that the men overseas were undeniably thrilled to be there. They were patriots, and heroes, and all that, but they were scared, too. This movie glorifies the beauty in fighting for one’s country just as much as it details the consequences. The explosions and gunfire are pretty for a second, but then they hit the ground and kill people and ruin lives and wreak havoc.

Chris Kyle really was an American hero, and he lived an important, tragically short life. If this movie, with its depiction of SEAL training, home invasion, sandstorm survival and mental instability still makes people want to go to war, so be it. I don’t ever want to, and I don’t advocate it, but I know that our country wouldn’t be where it is without good people like Kyle.