By Eleanor Ringel Cater
Oddly absent from many year-end lists and critics’ awards, “American Sniper” is a considerable return to form for Clint Eastwood. At 84, he can still bat one out of the park as impressively as anyone in Hollywood.
The baseball analogy is, perhaps, an unconscious reference to one of his lesser and more recent efforts: the amiable but unremarkable “Trouble with the Curve.”
Or maybe it’s simply my subconscious — reaching back to one of the battier moments of the last Presidential campaign in which Eastwood lectured an empty chair.
Whatever the association, “American Sniper” is not only one of the filmmaker’s best, but also one of the best movies of last year (though it’s just now opening here, it played the “de rigueur” cities to qualify for the 2014 Oscar nominations).
Based on a true story, the picture sets its sights on the conundrum of America’s love/hate relationship with war. In this instance, the war in Iraq. Consider Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” or even that glorious warhorse, “Patton.”
Eastwood puts us on the spot with his first scene. U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is perched on a roof in some dusty Iraqi village, scanning the street below for any potential threats to nearby American soldiers. A woman in a traditional burka, holding a little boy’s hand, walks into his viewfinder. Are they a threat or merely innocents who’ve unwittingly strolled into a danger zone?
While Kyle makes up his mind, the movie flashes back to his Texas boyhood and hunting trips with his father and brother. There are only three kinds of people in the world, Dad says: sheep, wolves and sheepdogs.
You don’t need a doggie tag to tell which of the three Pop means them to be.
So Kyle grows up to be strong and true and as good a marksman as Gary Cooper – as Sergeant York. But World War I was one kind of war; the action in Iraq is quite another. York didn’t have to make life-and-death decisions about women and children.
“American Sniper” is all about the singularly slippery slope that was (and is) combat in the Middle East. Kyle is so good at what he does — around 160 kills — he becomes known as The Legend, a kind of revered talisman for the less-skilled grunts on the ground.
But reverence won’t necessarily help you sleep at night. Back home, he’s, well, sketchy around his wife (Sienna Miller, quite fine in the hard-to-act, one-dimensional role of the supportive military wife).
Kyle isn’t as necessarily as overtly dysfunctional as Jeremy Renner’s war-lover in “The Hurt Locker.” However, his itchy trigger finger demands to be scratched. He is only truly at home in combat, where —usually — the sheep and the wolves are clearly delineated.
But what if they’re not? That’s the crucial question Eastwood poses in his film’s very first moments. And while “American Sniper” is about much more than this one particular decision, the choice Kyle faces is the basis for the entire movie.
The back-home scenes verge on ‘50s corn. The cutesy courtship. The pure and true wife. The adorable kids. The backyard barbecue where Kyle almost shoots down a neighbor’s dog.
Yeah, you read that right. What initially comes off as one-note Americana, is in fact, part of the movie’s overall scheme. This is not Ernie Pyle’s war and this is not Norman Rockwell’s home front. Kyle ultimately serves four tours of duty, and each time he comes back, he’s a little less the person he was when he left. War is hell, sure. War is also the very air he breathes.
Eastwood lays all this out with masterful ease. The combat scenes have an authoritative thrill-factor that reflect the opiate of war. Banding together as brothers is frankly heroic. By contrast, domesticity seems like your grandpa’s dopey home movies.
This is the same message Eastwood imparted so memorably in his Oscar-winning “Unforgiven.” Killing a man is a helluva thing. No matter how much the killing may be deserved, it’s still a helluva thing.
Eastwood-as-director is the star here, but that takes nothing away from the Cooper. If the actor has left you cold before (as he did me, even in Oscar-bait like “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle”), here’s the picture that will turn you around. Believably beefed up on a patented Texas diet of tacos, beer and red meat, Cooper explores every aspect of this flawed hero. And he never makes the easy choice, even when playing the too-familiar movie-moments of post-traumatic stress syndrome.
“American Sniper” is an all-American testament to the toll wars take. And a potent reminder what is meant by winning. And losing.
No matter how you play the game.