Clint Eastwood has long been regarded as one of our great directors, but he’s made four stinkers in a row, beginning with Invictus and ending with the regrettable Jersey Boys. American Sniper represents a return to form, directing-wise. Eastwood is in command of the material, the actors and the film’s look in a way he hasn’t been in years.

 

If only the material were better. (And note: It’s wisest to leave one’s personal politics outside the multiplex when viewing American Sniper.) Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is a sniper with the Navy SEALs who joins up after bombings at American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The movie is based on his memoir, and as someone who doesn’t care about how novels, articles, memoirs or video games are adapted to the screen, I don’t care that Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall left out Kyle’s self-aggrandizement. They leave in his disdain and borderline hatred for Iraqis and foreign agents in the war, which is pretty ballsy given the way we’re supposed to support our troops no matter what.

 

As far as character development goes, there isn’t much to Kyle. After enlisting, he becomes a SEAL—a natural choice given his marksmanship and ability to get through the physical struggle of SEAL training—and goes on to become a sniper with more kills than any other sniper in American history.

 

Cooper manages the difficult task of taking a rah-rah-America character with little depth—this is a man who, in the movie, questions nothing—and making him someone we feel for, as a man and as a soldier. There’s always been something to Cooper that feels forced or inauthentic (as likable as he can be), but here he rises to the challenge, making Kyle the kind of person we care about even as he’s emotionally abandoning his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller, who’s virtually unrecognizable), and children.

 

The screenplay itself is pretty thin, following Kyle from a rooftop, flashing back to his boyhood (when he learns from his father how to handle a rifle), and then forward to training, meeting Taya, and the battlefield; any character not named Chris Kyle is a prop screenwriter Hall uses to move the story forward. Miller, in a bravura introductory segment in a bar when she matches Kyle bourbon shot for bourbon shot, gets to show some smarts and chutzpah. Then in every subsequent scene she’s the nagging wife telling Kyle that he’s shutting out she and the kids. As good as Miller is, it would be nice if she had something else to do.

 

Cooper fares better, subtly registering Kyle’s growing problems with post-traumatic stress the farther the movie plods along. By the time he reaches a psychiatrist in the movie’s final 30 minutes, Cooper’s gaze is so distant you wonder whether he’s suffering from PTSD. It’s the first time a Cooper performance feels completely sincere.

 

In the end, there is a message about how war—any war—damages psychologically the participants, on the battlefield and at home, and Eastwood draws a line in the sand showing the difference between paying homage to a soldier and celebrating a military campaign. Still, I longed for the definitive, if unsubtle, statement of a movie like Unforgiven—violence changes you no matter who you are, what you do, what your reasons and whether it’s righteous or built on a lie.

 

AMERICAN SNIPER

Directed by Clint Eastwood

With Cooper and Miller

Regal Stadium 14

R
132 min.