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USA 2014
Directed by
Clint Eastwood
132 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

American Sniper

Synopsis: The real life story of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), who joined the Navy SEALs in the aftermath of 9/11 and was credited with 160 kills and saving the lives of many of his fellow soldiers.

Whether as The Outlaw Josey Wales, The Man With No Name or Dirty Harry, Clint Eastwood has built a remarkable career as an actor and a director on the back of America’s love of gun-wielding heroes from the legendary Wild West. Hence it is entirely fitting that as that career winds down he takes the legend to the real world. 

The legend is here embodied by Chris Kyle, born and raised in Bible-belt Texas by a father who taught him the manly art of hunting and that in a world divided into sheep (Good) and wolves (Evil), his duty was to be a sheep dog.  These two elements are the foundation of Chris’s world-view, his role as military-sanctioned sniper allowing him to live out his imaginary universe in a way that his previous job of being a rodeo cowboy never could.

Eastwood’s film has a veneer of inquiry to it but really it is an apologia (much as was Gran Torino) for the director’s own point of view. And that point of view is that Chris Kyle was a genuine American hero and, on the best Fordian tradition, that the legend is true. American Sniper is like a military tribunal set up to investigate one of its own, and a decorated one at that. There is little to wonder at in the verdict. Eastwood stacks the bench by making sure that Evil is clearly identified with the enemy: faceless "hostiles" who use children and women to throw hand grenades and behead American soldiers on tape and sell videocassettes of it, whilst one of their principal apparatchiks, called The Butcher, kills his own people with a (battery-powered) drill, and so on.  

Good, of course is Chris and his team of muscle-bound SEALS and their loved ones Stateside. Chris kills 160 people with, apparently, not one unjustified or erroneous death. There is the occasional pass at some kind of questioning of the moral validity of his actions, as when his future wife (Sienna Miller) asks him if he ever wonders about the person on the receiving end of his bullet, but Chris steadfastly refuses to go there, maintaining a unswerving commitment to his patriotic mission.  Even Chris’s post-traumatic stress is dealt with in manly fashion as his therapy amount to helping maimed veterans “get their balls back” by teaching them how to shoot (and in a scene which recalls the very different treatment of a similar scene in The Hunt takes his own son hunting).

Although I must admit by the end of Chris’s fourth and final tour of duty and a climactic battle involving his opposite number on the Iraqi side I was starting to feel a tad fatigued by the combat scenes and wondering how much of this was “real” and how much cinematic invention, directorially American Sniper is an impressively made film particularly for an 84-year old (although the film's editor seems to think that we can't tell the difference between a real baby and a dummy one) – the action is intense, the passage of time with Chris’s four tours against a background of a deteriorating marriage economically handled, and whilst I’ve never been a Bradley Cooper fan, the actor (he also is a co-producer of the film) does a convincingly sympathetic job of playing the beefy working class Texan.

Patriotism is a difficult question for people of a pacifist bent. Eastwood, very much in the Fordian tradition, has chosen to present the other side of the coin. It’s not a subtle argument (albeit nuanced compared to David's Ayer's WWII throwback of last year, Fury) and some may feel that he has turned a blind eye to too much, particularly the political, but the coda which runs over the end credits lends a particularly powerful punch to what is, if nothing else, a compelling account of one man's life.




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