Chris Kyle is a legendary Navy SEAL, and Bradley Cooper’s portrayal of him in Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is powerful and compelling. Eastwood’s film, as a whole, has plenty of problems, but Cooper rises above the patchy melodrama and overly slick segments to make the film worthwhile.
Kyle was killed while the film was being produced, shot to death by a veteran he was trying to mentor on a shooting range. Kyle did four tours in Iraq, with 160 confirmed kills, an American sniper record. His story is extraordinary, not just for what he did overseas, but for the way he eventually met his death.
The film works best when depicting Kyle at work in Iraq, constructing some very tense battle scenes and sequences as seen through Kyle’s riflescope. There’s a subplot involving an enemy sniper named Mustafa (Sammy Sheik) that feels like an entirely different movie. For some reason, Eastwood employs a showier style in the scenes involving Mustafa, which feel a bit false and artificial alongside the movie’s grittier moments.
Eastwood does a decent job of showing what soldiers like Kyle were up against in Iraq. Soldiers sit down for what seems to be a friendly dinner, only to discover a cache of weapons in another room. Women give their children bombs to lob at Americans. Enemy torture artists take drills to the heads of children because their parents spoke with American soldiers.
The film is also powerful in dealing with Kyle’s solitary stress when home from the war. One of the film’s best scenes involves Kyle running into a former soldier while in an auto shop. It’s in these moments that Cooper does a fantastic job of depicting a man with a lot of bad memories clamoring for attention in his head.
Saddled with the film’s worst dialogue, Sienna Miller battles hard in trying to make Kyle’s wife, Taya, an intriguing movie character. Much fault for the Taya character’s shortcomings falls on screenwriter Jason Hall’s leaden lines. There are scenes in this movie involving Taya that you will swear you’ve seen before because there’s nothing original or standout about them. Still, Miller is a strong actress, and she salvages as much as she can with the role.
Eastwood’s film completely avoids some of the more controversial stateside aspects of Kyle’s post-war life, such as his strange feud with former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, and his alleged killing of two carjackers in Dallas, Texas. That was probably a good choice, because the film feels a bit overstuffed at two-plus hours. Kyle punching Ventura in the face—as Kyle alleged in his book—would’ve been an interesting sight, but it wouldn’t have fit in this movie. That would’ve been too much of a tonal shift.
Cooper underwent an impressive physical transformation to play Kyle. He shows that the transformation wasn’t all cosmetic in a moment when he seems to deadlift the weight of a small city during a training session.
Eastwood includes some footage of the actual funeral procession and memorial event held for Kyle. He shies away from showing Kyle’s death, but we do get a brief glimpse of an actor portraying his assailant. It’s such a strange ending to Kyle’s story.
Eastwood did two movies in 2014, and American Sniper is far superior to his lousy Jersey Boys. Still, there are times when Eastwood doesn’t seem to have full command of the frame, and he is working with a spotty script at best.
What you will walk away from American Sniper with is the impact of Cooper’s dedicated performance. Cooper, currently starring on Broadway in The Elephant Man, is an actor forever taking risks and challenging himself. He does “the Legend” proud.