Titus 1:15 To the pure, all things are pure…
To this Biblical passage I add, “to the political, all things are political.” This goes for film critics as well as politicians, and that has posed a few problems in covering American Sniper, one of the best films of the year.
You can almost palpably feel the angst in many a critic’s attempts to describe, praise or even evaluate the film objectively. To praise the film might be seen as a support for the war, or George W. in particular, or warmongers in general, and that slight possibility is anathema to too many reviewers, and throws them onto many a divergent path. This film may go down in history as a Rorschach test first and a work of art second.
As hard as it might be for some critics to handle, this is a film first and foremost. It’s a well directed, well acted, well paced and well written film as well. And for those who thought that director Clint Eastwood had lost his mojo—and there has been ample recent evidence—it’s a relief to see he hasn’t.
This is partly the story of the sniper with the single most kills in American military history, Chris Kyle. It mainly covers his tours in Iraq, and as such is one of the best-constructed war films in recent memory. But the film goes beyond that, and does it sensitively and realistically. It covers the effect of his work and the war on him and especially his family. That’s a difficult balance to maintain for any film, but American Sniper pulls it off.
This is due in great part to the two central performances. I say two because there has been a great deal of attention paid to Bradley Cooper, who bulked up big-time for the role and has turned from “that guy in the Hangover movies” to an actor enjoying his third acting Oscar nomination in three years. This is the best work he’s ever done, and by far the least ostentatious. Bradley’s performances in Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle were showy, edgy and appropriately over the top at times. Here he has nailed a character that is sure of himself—to a fault sometimes—and deeply committed to what he believes. It’s the opposite of flashy, but is strong and defined. Like Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side, an underrated actor creates a character and then simply lives that like character throughout (apparently he also stayed in character throughout the shoot). Cooper doesn’t just “act up a storm” in any given scene, or show us his acting chops, but embodies his creation.
Just as excellent is Sienna Miller, who rises to a new level in her role as Kyle’s wife Taya. In what could have been a throwaway role as the longsuffering wife, Miller makes this character as much of a specific individual as her husband. Miller has previously been known for her looks as much as anything. Here she brings an intelligence and raw reality we haven’t seen before. In some scenes, partly due to Chris’s reticence and Taya’s intense concern, Miller pops off the screen more than Cooper. If this role were in another film, she’d likely get an Oscar nomination, or at least be in the discussion for one.
The script succeeds in balancing a number of narrative threads, and it seems a juggling act at times. There is Kyle the sniper, and the intense difficulty of knowing when and whom to shoot. Then there is another, almost competing sniper on the other side of the war. Then there is his family, and the tensions there. Then there is the difficulty of adjusting to life back home when you’re still feeling the siren call (and what is that call, exactly?). Only the close of the story poses a slight problem narratively (spoiler alert), and it isn’t allowed to reflect back onto what we’ve already seen.
Eastwood has been known for underplaying for a long time, and his films receive some of their power from this understatement. But here he allows some genuine, heartfelt emotion to come to the surface in real-life contexts, not set pieces designed to demonstrate either the actor’s skills or the importance of the dramatic moment. This is his most rounded and balanced film in years.
American Sniper has carved out a new place for itself. It’s not The Hurt Locker or Zero Dark Thirty, though there are narrative similarities. It’s not a Bourne film, though the editing and sound editing work to create some similarly tense action sequences at times. It’s not The Green Berets, either, and can’t and shouldn’t be analyzed primarily from a political point of view. It’s the story of a man with deep convictions and with a talent that involves shooting. That may be hard to wrap one’s head around at times for some critics, but this is first and foremost a character study of an American soldier. Yes, it doesn’t condemn him for going to war, but nor does it shy away from the devastating impact that war can have on a body, a psyche, or a family. There may be thematic reverberations emanating the film, but it may be months or years before we can objectively see and analyze them.
In the meantime, this is solid, clean, mature filmmaking at its best.