Biopics about American war heroes are a Hollywood tradition going all the way back to Gary Cooper starring as the legendary World War I sharpshooter "Sergeant York" and World War II's highly decorated Audie Murphy playing himself in "To Hell and Back." "American Sniper" is squarely in that mold, but because it's directed by Clint Eastwood something else is going on as well.
Taken from the autobiography of the same name, "American Sniper" stars Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL whose 160 confirmed kills over four tours of duty in Iraq made him the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history.
Eastwood is the director who made the Oscar-winning "Unforgiven," which deals with the destructive inner price that must be paid for inflicting violence, so "American Sniper" is also a film that focuses not only on what Kyle did but on what his actions did to him.
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By the same token, it would be a mistake to see "American Sniper" as an exercise in some kind of revisionism. Kyle was a thorough-going patriot who never stopped believing completely in his mission and, as written by Jason Hall, this film respects that.
Yet creeping up on Kyle over the more than 1,000 days he spent in Iraq, and on the audience as well, is the notion that there are unexpected, relentlessly soul-destroying consequences to those actions that will affect even a person convinced, as Kyle was, that he could defend what he'd done if he came face to face with God.
Though those who've seen him in "Silver Linings Playbook" and "American Hustle" can be forgiven for thinking of him as an unlikely choice, Bradley Cooper is completely on target as the man so feared by Al Qaeda that it placed a price of $180,000 on his head.
Having gained 35 pounds and bulked himself up to refrigerator/freezer size, not to mention acquiring a convincing Texas accent, Cooper has unexpectedly transformed himself into a virtual double for the man who is on view in numerous YouTube clips.
"American Sniper" opens by throwing us right in the middle of Kyle's military life. He is prone on an Iraqi rooftop, providing cover for the troops by taking out credible threats. But what exactly does that mean?
Does that mandate, for instance, cover the mother and small child Kyle sees who are acting somewhat suspiciously but are, after all, a mother and a small child? The call is his, and he knows that if his decision is wrong, "this is your ass in Leavenworth."
Before we find out what Kyle decides, the film flashes back to his childhood as a gifted shooter and the son of a father who tells him there are three types of people in the world: sheep, wolves who prey on them and sheep dogs who protect them. There's no doubt which category Kyle sees himself in.
We also get glimpses into Kyle's personal life, like his meeting at a bar with future wife Taya (the chameleon-like Sienna Miller). As soon as she tells him she never ever so much as dates SEALs, you can just about hear those wedding bells.
These civilian sequences feel pro forma, so "American Sniper" was wise to start the film with that sniper action. Once the film returns to Iraq and the war on the ground, we're on better footing.
Working with his expert editing team of Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach and cinematographer Tom Stern, Eastwood's impeccably crafted action sequences so catch us up in the chaos of combat we are almost not aware that we're watching a film at all.
Though Kyle's book is episodic, "American Sniper" has understandably found it necessary to construct a kind of dramatic through line, which involves Kyle's determination to track down an evildoer called the Butcher (Mido Hamada) and the parallel quest of an ace Syrian sniper named Mustafa (Sammy Sheik) to find and kill the American.
"American Sniper" is at its best when it deals with the assembly-line-of-death relentlessness of combat for Kyle, how it simultaneously consumes him and wears him down, and how, to his wife's distress, it turns the civilian life he returns to between tours of duty into the aberration, not the norm.
If there is a surprise to "American Sniper," a way it departs from films like "Sergeant York" and "To Hell and Back," it's in its sense that heroism and being on the right side do not solve all problems for men in combat. It's doubtless always been that way, but the movies have not always been willing to notice.
MPAA rating: R, for strong and disturbing war violence and language throughout, including some sexual references.
Running time: 2 hours, 14 minutes.
Playing: In limited release.