For decades now, Clint Eastwood has cast his squinty eyes on violence, pondering when it is necessary and how it affects the individual. Iraq warrior biopic "American Sniper," about the late Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, affords Eastwood another opportunity to wrestle with the way of the gun, yet the film gets mired in military hero worship.
Based on Kyle's autobiography (with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice), "American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History," the film stars a bulked-up Bradley Cooper as the bronco-riding, beer-swilling, Texas-drawling good ol' boy who becomes "The Legend" ("a title you don't want," the screen Kyle avers) on his way to 160 confirmed kills behind the long barrel of an M40 rifle.
"Sniper" covers Kyle's four tours of duty in Iraq (between 1999 and 2009), his meeting and winning his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) and the domestic spaces between and after his time in-country. In principle, "Sniper" serves as an ode to conventionally understood manly skill, as evidenced by an early-childhood hunting-trip flashback in which Kyle's father affirms, "You got a gift" and confirmed by SEAL training and tour-of-duty episodes. Early and often, Kyle gets depicted as a God-fearing alpha American male who's motivated by vengeance for America and his fallen brothers in arms, and whose only fault may be loving his country too much.
Along these lines, Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall insist upon the nobility of Kyle, showing how he takes no pleasure -- and exhibits humility, not pride -- in picking off his targets. Little evidence supports this view when it comes to the real Kyle, and some evidence points to the contrary ("I only wish I had killed more," the man wrote). Kyle was given to boastful self-mythologizing; "American Sniper" is content to mythologize, while warming over tortured beats from the Oscar-winning "The Hurt Locker." Above and beyond the script, a haggard, coiled, grunting Cooper does heroic service to Kyle's humanity, inhabiting his self-confidence and patriotic blinders, his post-traumatic stresses and creeping doubts.
In an effort to give Kyle's story dramatic shape, Hall trumps up Iraqi insurgent sniper Mustafa (Sammy Sheik) as a well-matched adversary to Kyle (though Mustafa only rates two sentences in Kyle's book, one of which is "I never saw him") and depicts Kyle as taking a personal interest and hands-on approach in the hunt for terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. These and all other Iraqis of "military age" get dubbed "savages" by Kyle (in the film's least varnished bit of dialogue), and indeed the Iraqi population gets represented entirely by bad guys trying to kill our Joes.
Back home, Kyle turns a corner into service for the V.A., but this and his strange subsequent fate get entirely short shrift, though they're at least as important to the meaning of Kyle's life as the military service that absorbs most of the film's running time. "Sniper" turns out to be perfunctory in exploring the human dimension of a complicated man and the thoughts and experiences so many American military families have struggled to come to terms with.
Rated R for strong and disturbing war violence, and language throughout including some sexual references. Two hours, 12 minutes.