“American Sniper” isn’t a war film or an antiwar film, then, and yet it’s both those things. It’s nonpartisan but not so naive as to be apolitical. Mostly, it’s a soldier’s story, as honest as its director can make it. That that director is Clint Eastwood may cause some to expect mindless jingoism or a true-blue salute, depending on which way they lean. But Eastwood the filmmaker has always been a more complicated figure than Eastwood the public persona, and his best work — with which this movie belongs — is scaldingly bleak about what human beings can do to each other. In films like “Unforgiven,” “Flags of Our Fathers,” “Letters From Iwo Jima,” and “Million Dollar Baby,” he has insisted that violence is an inescapable aspect of our existence and that it exacts lasting costs in dignity, self-worth, and emotional connection. There is very little self-satisfied mayhem in Clint’s universe — very rarely does the beast not bite us back.
The movie is adapted from Kyle’s 2012 autobiography of the same name and follows his Texas youth, early rodeo days, and courtship and marriage to Taya (Sienna Miller). Accurately or not — there have been debates — he’s presented as a better-than-average good ol’ boy, lacking in the entitlement and self-aggrandizement of the stereotype, and he signs up for the SEALs in the straightforward belief that America needs to be protected from its enemies. The movie is explicitly about that belief being tested for its strengths and weaknesses.
His first kills in country — his first “bad guys” — are a grenade-bearing little boy and his mother (not credited, unfortunately), and immediately Kyle’s far in over his head. You can see in his face that whatever comes after, he’ll never forgive himself for this. Cooper drops the hi-de-ho ebullience of “Silver Linings Playbook” and the “Hangover” movies and buries his reactions beneath his character’s bulk — the muscles Kyle builds up and the beard he grows in a futile bid to hide from himself. Employed as an “overhead” on rooftops to protect squads of Marines going door to door in Fallujah, his unerring marksmanship leads to him being regarded with awe as “The Legend,” and every time another soldier calls him that, Kyle looks away with equal parts modesty and shame.
While “American Sniper” is told from the viewpoint of the American military, it’s clear-eyed about the wreckage our presence leaves in its wake. An Iraqi patriarch (Navid Negahban) offers to lead US personnel (for cash) to an Al Qaeda enforcer called the Butcher (Mido Hamada), and Kyle assures the safety of the man and his children. It does not end well; in a later Stateside scene in which Kyle flips out over his newborn daughter’s cries, it’s a good bet whose wails he’s hearing. The film’s sympathies are with the grunts, but as a portrait of bureaucratic mismanagement and tactical overkill, the movie stings more than it soothes. Every so often, we seem to see the US troops, encased in high-tech hardware and adorned with death’s-head insignias, the way Iraqis may have seen them: as the stormtroopers from “Star Wars.”
Eastwood’s hardly making a screed here, but “American Sniper” has been read in certain quarters — by some who’ve seen the movie and some who haven’t — as an apologia for the Iraq war, and that is a serious misapprehension. The film is, simply, a tragedy in which American certainty comes to grief against the rocks of the real world, and it views its central figure as a decent man doing indecent things for what he keeps telling himself is a greater good. As the years pass, people around Kyle start coming undone: his wife — Miller is very touching as a woman who is both wiser and weaker than her husband — his little brother in the Marines (Keir O’Donnell), fellow SEAL Marc Lee (Luke Grimes). When the latter is killed in action, his mother (Pamela Denise Weaver) reads from a letter, written by the real Marc Lee, that asks, in part, “When does glory fade away and become a wrongful crusade?”
Kyle’s response to that in the film is to insist that the letter — the doubt it contains — is what killed his buddy. Cooper’s body language, tense and miserable, says otherwise. There will be moviegoers who want more of a statement, but Eastwood doesn’t do that. He’s more interested in individuals than movements, and he knows he can convey his nuances through filmmaking. The man is 84, and I don’t know that he has directed a sequence as brilliant and as damning as the sandstorm that engulfs Kyle and his comrades at the climax of “American Sniper,” a brown-out that has to be read as a metaphor for a righteousness that has lost its way.
There are missteps, one of them critical. Factual or not, the presence of an equally skilled enemy marksman named Mustafa (Sammy Sheik) allows the director to gin up suspense with touches of Hollywood-style staging that feel false; on the other hand, the story line illustrates Kyle’s growing pursuit of vengeance over his stated patriotic motives and the safety of his men. And there’s no denying that Eastwood botches the ending of this story, in part because life itself botched it well into the film’s production. What rescues this killer from himself, ultimately, is saving fellow veterans, but there are those who can’t be saved, and while Eastwood is willing to glance in that direction, he doesn’t quite have the courage to go all the way into the dark.
The director might say the event in question was too close, personally and chronologically, but there was a chance to be taken and he missed it, and in its very final moments, “American Sniper” settles for the simpler heroism that too many of us crave. None of that erases the scourging sadness of all that has preceded it in this great and terrible film.