Biopics have often been an awards season favorite for many years. Considering that the motion picture Academy is made up mostly of veteran actors and actresses, it’s easy to see why they award so many of their peers when they take on a role of impersonating some great historical figure. Sometimes that actor or actress pulls off the role in convincing fashion (like Daniel Day-Lewis in 2012’s Lincoln) or it can come off as phony and cartoonish (Leonardo DiCaprio in 2011’s J. Edgar). Clint Eastwood has developed a reputation as a director for bringing simple yet elegant techniques into his often very quiet yet endearing films, and some of his recent movies have indeed tackled real life subjects. Some of his historical films have been interesting windows into both old and recent history, like 2006’s Letters From Iwo Jima and 2009’s Invictus. But his record with biopics hasn’t been quite as strong. His J. Edgar, for example, was a messy and convoluted take on the life of the notorious FBI founder, featuring Leonardo DiCaprio’s less than effective impersonation performed through some of the worst old-age make-up ever seen on film. Eastwood’s newest movie, American Sniper, again puts the director into the position of telling the story of a real life and controversial American icon, only this time, the end result is a much more assured and captivating story. Recounting the true life story of Chris Kyle, a navy seal sniper credited with the most confirmed kills of any American serviceman in military history, Clint Eastwood has managed to craft a compelling account of the life of a modern American soldier, and how his experience is indicative of the world that we live in today and how it will continue into the future.
What’s most interesting about the movie itself is not the quality of its filmmaking; we already know that Clint Eastwood is capable enough to tackle this kind of material. No, what’s really interesting is the subject himself. Chris Kyle isn’t particularly the kind of person that Hollywood usually lionizes as a hero. Kyle in real life was a staunch right-wing, gun loving and militaristic Christian conservative; someone Hollywood would usually cast as the villain in their stories. But Eastwood’s portrayal of the man is much more sympathetic towards the his life and is far more interested in showing the extraordinary things that he accomplished within and outside of combat. Some more liberal audience members may find this kind of portrayal too reverential and off-putting, but I would argue that American Sniper is not a whitewash of a controversial figure either. Though Easwood’s own personal politics do lean closer to Chris Kyle’s than to the rest of Hollywood, he still has been sharply critical of both Republican and Democratic administrations with regard to US policy in the Middle East, and some of that frustration comes out in a subtly drawn anti-war message behind this movie. For Eastwood, the film is less about the combat and more about the side effects, particularly with regard to the psychological consciousness of those fighting in it. And in this regard, Chris Kyle proves to be an ideal subject for examination and reflection of the cost of war.
Adapted from Chris Kyle’s own auto-biographical account of his war experiences, American Sniper covers nearly fifteen years of the man’s life; from his recruitment into the elite Navy Seals team to his post-war experience and his tragic assassination in 2013. Chris Kyle (an almost unrecognizable Bradley Cooper) is first shown as a rodeo cowboy who is sprung into signing up for military service after seeing the embassy bombings in Africa and Afghanistan in the late 90’s. Hoping to push himself harder and closer to the front lines, Kyle signs up for the Navy Seals, and proves very quickly to be a reliable marksman shooter; a distinction that earns him the position of combat sniper in his unit. In the middle of his grueling basic training, he meets Taya (Sienna Miller) the woman who would become the love of his life, whom he marries just before heading off to his first tour of duty in Iraq. While on tour, he quickly becomes a legend amongst his fellow soldiers, amassing a significant body count in his time there. Once back home, Kyle welcomes the birth of his children, but also reveals to his wife an uneasy amount of bottled up tension. Kyle, over time, becomes more and more obsessed with getting the job done over in the Middle East, which in turn causes him to feel more isolated and prone to erratic behavior, which puts both him and his units in far more precarious situations. After four tours, Chris Kyle ends his time in Iraq and tries to settle into a normal life back home, which he soon finds to be increasingly difficult. And part of that feeling of unease is built upon his belief that all his hard work still did not do enough, which then springs him into becoming an active voice for his fellow wounded soldiers, which in turn helps him to recover a bit of his own sanity.
Like I said before, Chris Kyle’s life is not one you would usually see given such a complex and compassionate treatment. If given to someone on either extreme on the political spectrum, American Sniper could have become a far less effective biography of an interesting individual. Either the movie could have been too reverential or too critical for its own good and Chris Kyle would have become more of a strawman for either side’s political agenda and less of a fully dimensional character. Thankfully Clint Eastwood doesn’t delve into politics with this story, and instead portrays the man as a multilayered individual, warts and all. Chris Kyle is shown to be an American hero, both on and off the field, and the movie honors the hard work that the man had accomplished in his life. But at the same time, it also shows Chris Kyle as a vain and stubborn individual, with instances where his arrogance sometimes causes disunity in both his combat units as well as in his marriage. While Kyle still remains a likable and resilient guy throughout, the movie rightfully avoids the trap of turning him into a saint The story works because of this complexity and it manages to accomplish what most great biopics should do, which is portray the man and not the legend. Because of this, we are able to put away any of our preconceived notions of who Chris Kyle was, and examine instead the conditions that made the person that he is. Overall, it gives the movie a remarkably introspective look into the psyche of an Amercican soldier and what goes through their mind as they face almost certain death during combat.
Mainly the reason why this works so well in the movie is because of Bradley Cooper’s standout performance. Cooper gained nearly 40 pounds of extra weight and muscle in order to play the physically imposing Chris Kyle, and the transformation is remarkable, especially when you compare the two side by side. Cooper was attached to this film at a very early state in production, even before Chris Kyle’s untimely death, which probably gave him a very deep insight into the mind of his character. You can see the hard work he put into the role throughout, not only in trying to look like him, but also getting his mannerisms and Texas drawl down perfectly. Even with the imitation perfected, Cooper still needed to make the character come alive and compel us throughout the entire movie, and he accomplishes that spectacularly well. His performance is actually at its best in the quieter moments, where he’s called upon to drop the swagger and show the inner turmoil under the surface. I especially like the way he shows Chris Kyle’s reserved isolation, as he tries his hardest not to show weakness in front of others, even though it’s taking it’s toll on his mental well-being. Sienna Miller also proves to be surprisingly effective in her role as Taya Kyle. She matches Cooper’s subtlty quite well in a part that could have easily been lost in lesser hands. She also hides her natural British accent very well and makes Taya just as much of a force in the story as Chris Kyle, acting as his anchor to reality. Eastwood’s always been good at getting subtle and effective performances out of his actors, and this movie continues that strong trend.
The movie is visually a very strong one as well. It’s remarkable that at the age of 84, Clint Eastwood is still making movies with this kind of scale and complexity. The battle scenes in particular are all really well staged, and show a side of the director that we haven’t seen before. War movies are nothing new to Clint Eastwood; he acted in quite a few (1970’s Kelly’s Heroes for example) and directed a couple as well (his Iwo Jima duo). But his direction here is far less about the bigger picture and much more intimate, putting us right in the middle of the action from Chris Kyle’s point of view. It gives the movie a much more visceral feel, much like how Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2009) got us up close to wartime combat. But, even still, this does feel like a Clint Eastwood movie, with the muted color palette and the workman-like approach to framing the shots. It’s distinctively his style, but it’s also neat to see the Hollywood legend flex his cinematic muscles a bit more in order to do what’s right for the scene. One particularly memorable set piece is a spectacular shootout in the middle of a sand storm, which is grandiose in all the right ways, but never distracts with anything too over the top. And again, this is a Octogenarian filmmaker coming up with this grand vision, showing that good filmmakers always stay strong even into their twilight years. Eastwood also makes good on the subtext behind the movie, showing the cost of war, without ever getting preachy or too one-sided. Given strong support from a production crew that he has collaborated with for many years now, all delivering some of their best work to date, American Sniper definitely stands well amongst Eastwood’s whole body of work.
I’m sure this will be one of the most hotly debated movies of this upcoming Awards season, as well it should be. Some may not like it’s politics, while others may view it to be much more complex than they first realized. I for one found it to be a very rewarding cinematic experience. Is it Clint Eastwood’s best movie? Probably not. I would have liked there to have been more time devoted to showing Chris Kyle’s pre and post-war lives, especially with regard to his work helping wounded veterans after he returned home; something that actually led up to his untimely death, as he was gunned down by a mentally disturbed veteran he was trying to help. That part of the movie felt rushed in the end, but it’s not something that spoils the rest of the story. It’s still a captivating experience and without a doubt the best biopic that Eastwood has ever directed. I am happy that the movie has already begun to get some Award season recognition, especially for Bradley Cooper’s transformative performance. It may not be the victor in the end, but it is neat to see that Hollywood still is able to honor challenging films like this with a nomination. If this movie had come out earlier, it may have ended up on my list for the best films of last year, but since it’s out now in wide release in early January, it’ll probably be the best option available to you right now at your local multiplex. It works as both an effective documentation of modern wartime combat, and as a multilayered character study, and is well worth exploring if you’re already a fan of Clint Eastwood’s work. And probably most effectively, it puts the spotlight on a group of individuals that should never be ignored, that being the soldiers returning home from war both emotionally and physically scarred. Even with an unconventional subject at its center like Chris Kyle, the message at the center of American Sniper will still ring true for all audiences.