I am not a fan of Clint Eastwood as a director. I tend to find his movies long, aimless, and kind of boring, with an occasionally potent scene.
So when I went to see his latest film, American Sniper, I was not optimistic.
But what I saw was his greatest film ever.
American Sniper tells the story of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), "The Legend" who has the military's highest record for sniper kills. The story opens with Chris already in the war, keeping watch over a military convoy as he sees a woman hand a child a grenade to use on the Americans. The scene is horrific and tense. The movie then brings us to a flashback of Kyle'e upbringing. He is a manly Texan who is inspired to join the Navy SEALs after the American Embassy in Tanzania is attacked by terrorists. He goes through the intense training and meets Taya (Sienna Miller). They engage in a whirlwind romance that is jarred by the Iraq War.
What follows is a harrowing tale of Chris as he enters the hell of war that takes its toll on himself and his family. To add to the tension, American Sniper portrays an insurgent sniper, Mustafa (Sammy Sheik) who acts as the chief rival and foil to Chris as their inevitable confrontation builds to a head.
This is the movie of young man. It has the vibrancy and the energy of someone at the beginning of his career. But Eastwood, at 84, has infused his movie with a dynamic power that I haven't seen in his other films. He is very conservative with his movie score, but in this case it serves to underscore the realism of the movie and when music does come up, it is heartbreaking.
The staging of the action sequences is great. He doesn't cut it up and make it choppy. Instead, he gets most of the excitement out of the rising tension. Whenever Chris and his crew enter the war zone, you feel the danger. A knot enters your stomach that doesn't let up until he's home.
And when Chris is home Eastwood plays up a whole different type of drama. It is a testament to the film that the home-front scenes are just as compelling as the war scenes. Miller is particularly good as her frustration mounts. She does not come off as cloying or unreasonable as Chris pulls further and further away.
The biggest drawback of the film are the supporting characters. Outside of Chris and Taya, I probably could not tell you the names of anyone else. This was the same criticism I had of Big Hero 6. They all have distinctive looks and voices, but it feels more like they are there to fill a certain space than that they are there to inhabit three dimensional characters.
But what really brings this movie together is the wonderfully stoic performance of Cooper. I have never seen him better. The great thing about what he does is his restraint. He plays Chris as a very John Wayne-type man. He is the strong, silent type in the classic sense. His quietness is not portrayed as a flaw that has to be broken, but just a character trait. Chris is who he is and he is okay with that. Cooper plays portrays him with a simple honesty that resonates with anyone who knows the personality type. But Cooper's performance has power percolating behind his eyes in a way that transforms him. I stopped thinking of him as Bradley Cooper.
Thematically, the movie is powerful and refreshing. Like most modern war movies, it doesn't hold back the horrors of war. But it is does a great job of making clear that there is no moral equivalency between the terrorists and the Americans. I think people are hungry for a movie that doesn't berate them for rooting for our soldiers. The movie doesn't shy away from the toll that even the most righteous warriors feel, but it you never stop yearning for a happy ending for Chris and his family.
The violence is shocking and not gratuitous, even when our heroes are fighting evil terrorists. As Catholics, we recognize that we need to reach out to others in peace. But we are allowed to use violence in a just war. There is no question from the movie's perspective, Chris believes the war is just and his intent is noble.
This is also one of the manliest movies I have seen in a long while. Writer Jason Hall captures the way guys talk to each other. When his injured friend mentions that he is going to get surgery to fix his face, Chris responds, "About time." This seeming cruelty is typical of the way most men relate to each other. It also touches upon the responsibility men feel to not only provide for their family but to show loyalty to their pals.
Christianity and the Bible are brought up, and while they are not centerpieces of the movie, they are treated with respect. Chris Kyle is not portrayed as a holy rolling saint. But when one of his fellow soldiers begins to question his faith (whether it was in God or in their mission), Chris tries to turn him in the right direction.
As an aside, I love the fact the Chris named his group of SEALs "The Punishers" after the comic book character, going so far as to paint his logo on their stuff.
When American Sniper was finished, everyone left the theater quietly. It felt disrespectful to talk.
This is one of the best movies of the year, and the best of Eastwood's career.
You should see it.
4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.