Directed by Clint Eastwood
For over 40 years now, Clint Eastwood has returned again and again to one theme - violence and the damage it does to the human soul. Beginning with 1973's High Plains Drifter and continuing through films like Unforgiven, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flags Of Our Fathers, Letters From Iwo Jima and Gran Torino it is the common thread that can be found uniting such disparate work. A force of nature rides into a small western town and punishes, spiritually, psychologically and physically, everyone for their cowardice. A man struggles with the hope of redemption and promises made to a dead wife. Soldiers from both sides of a battle try to live with their actions and the loss of their humanity. And, in American Sniper, a man wants to protect those around him no matter the cost to his soul and his family.
American Sniper is the story of Chris Kyle - Texan, Navy Seal, soldier, husband, father. I'm not going to dig into the facts of Kyle's life and what the film accurately portrays or inaccurately portrays. A film is, first and foremost, a piece of popular entertainment. When a film advises it is inspired by or is based on real events, it is fiction based on fact. The truth can be found in the ideas presented, in the shadows of the story. There is little objective about film. It is an art form that only allows for subjective story telling. Everyone involved in making a movie is concerned first with telling an entertaining story, a story that will move the audience emotionally, a story that will sell tickets. It was Stephen King who wrote: "Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie." Even a documentary is, at its core, an opinion piece.
Which is a long-winded way of saying don't look to American Sniper for the reality of Chris Kyle. Just like you wouldn't look to The Social Network for the reality of Mark Zuckerberg or to The Aviator for the reality of Howard Hughes or Chaplin for the reality of Charlie Chaplin. But, like the best biographical film, you can look to American Sniper for the truth of screenwriter Jason Hall's relationship with Chris Kyle or the truth of Bradley Cooper's performance as the character Chris Kyle struggles to find balance between his two lives. You can look to American Sniper for the continuing story of an artist's quest to answer some fundamental questions about the place of violence in our culture and what it means.
I've always believed one test of any movie is the feeling after leaving the theatre. If the world feels a little odd, a little off, the film has done its job. If the air smells different or my feet don't seem to be quite touching the ground, the film has done its job. Or if I feel like I know a secret about the human condition that the crowd sitting in the food court hasn't quite grasped yet, the film has done its job. If the audience exiting the theatre all seem to be on the same page, the film has done its job. The more extreme examples of this, I guess, would be Se7en or Unforgiven. In both cases everyone leaving the theatre knew they had just experience something extraordinary. Though, in the case of Se7en, we're also talking about a group of people who shuffled outside and just stared at each other in silent horror.
American Sniper did its job. While not a masterpiece like Unforgiven, I think it can sit comfortably on the same level as Flags Of Our Fathers or Letters From Iwo Jima. It is an amazing work of art by an artist nearing the end of an amazing career. In May, Clint Eastwood is turning 85. And if this turned out to be his last film, it would be one hell of a swan song. Confidently and ambitiously directed, the film has all the energy we expect from an Eastwood at the top of his game.
And then there's the performances. Sienna Miller has become one of the great character actors of her generation. Her performance as Taya Renae Kyle is flirty, caring, heartbreaking and an anchor in Chris Kyle's life of chaos. Bradley Cooper's performance as Chris Kyle is, honestly, brilliant. With each kill, a little more of the light in his eyes dims. With each return home, the weight on his shoulders, the stress of trying to hold it together, becomes more tangible. This Chris Kyle takes no joy in his job. This Chris Kyle is called legend and hero by his peers but is uncomfortable with the attention. Watching Cooper's and Miller's performances is like some kind of master acting class. They just vanish within their roles completely. And the supporting cast is just as strong. The growing disillusionment with the mission, the injuries, the death and violence and tension that surrounds them each day, and the effects of PTSD, each performance in this film feels right. Each and every performance in this film hits it out of the park.
American Sniper is a complex film, it demands a lot of its audience. The film asks us to be voyeurs as soldiers risk their lives during one of the great debacles of recent history. It isn't easy, the language isn't polite. Each pull of the trigger is messy and violent and something awful. Chris Kyle, in his selflessness, is a selfish bastard who won't communicate with his wife or family. But it is a great film, one of the great artistic statements of the past year.
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