By Al Alexander
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Too often we measure the cost of war by the thousands of lives lost. “American Sniper” takes the opposite tract by weighing war’s toll on one man who lived. His name is Chris Kyle, the deadliest marksman the Navy SEALs have ever known. He’s officially credited with 160 kills, but some estimates put that number closer to 250. But no matter the total, it will always be one short. That’s because Kyle will never be listed among the casualties. To the contrary, the Department of Defense considers him a survivor. But Clint Eastwood’s masterful deconstruction of the hero myth suggests otherwise.
Aided by an evocative script culled from Kyle’s autobiography by Jason Hall, Eastwood eschews his conservative leanings to make a surprising, but subtle, anti-war film that captures the cumulative costs of battle on a man, a family and a nation drawn into a conflict it had no business fighting. That would be Iraq, which, contrary to White House opinion, had nothing to do with the events of 9/11. But that didn’t stop us from sending thousands of Americans to their slaughter in a war, in hindsight, that was for naught.
It’s a mistake that can’t be erased, no matter how strenuously the Bush administration wanted to hide the maimed and dead from a bamboozled public. Some of them were Kyle’s buddies, cut down in hellholes like Sadr City and Fallujah. Each one, in Kyle’s eyes, representing a failure to fulfill his duty to protect them as the eagle-eyed sniper they teasingly nicknamed “The Legend.” As Kyle, Bradley Cooper (employing an impeccable Texas twang) taps deeply into that sorrow, a grief that follows the once jovial good ol’ boy from bombed-out buildings in Iraq to the main streets of America, where his wife, Taya (a brunette Sienna Miller), and their kids hope against hope to get Daddy back for good – and in one piece. But with each tour of duty – four in all – Cooper lets us see the light slowly seeping from Kyle’s deteriorating mind and body. He also enables us to grasp the blindness of a man who believes so indelibly in “God, country, family,” that he refuses to acknowledge that he’s a broken man.
In other words, Kyle is not unlike the conflicted “heroes” in Eastwood’s best movies, from “Unforgiven” and “Mystic River” to “Million Dollar Baby” and “Gran Torino.” And like those characters, your empathy soars, even though Eastwood demands that we make peace with the job Kyle has been sent to do. And that vocation is taking lives. Many of his “kills” may be inhuman – like “The Butcher,” who uses a power drill to dispatch his victims, including a little boy – but that doesn’t stop Eastwood from raising intriguing moral questions. For Kyle, killing people is not all that different from shooting deer with his pops as a kid growing up in Texas. What eats at him, is failing to dispatch the enemy – child or adult, soldier or civilian – before they wound or slay one of his guys.
These quandaries are communicated vividly through both Cooper’s Oscar-worthy performance and Eastwood’s crackerjack direction. He may be may 84, but Eastwood’s ability to present nail-biting action and suspense runs rings around many a whippersnapper. There are a handful of fierce battle scenes, including one conducted in a blinding sandstorm, that serve as standard bearers for the genre. Less astute are his depictions of Chris and Taya’s crumbling marriage, scenes that slip perilously close to melodrama. The movie also could have done without a side plot about Kyle’s determination to take out his equal, a guy named Mustafa, an alleged Syrian Olympic veteran who’d like nothing better than to collect the huge bounty on Kyle’s red-bearded head.
The flaws, as distracting as they may be, never undermine the film’s ease and brilliance in putting a very human face on a soldier who was a hero in everyone’s mind but his own. I won’t disclose Kyle’s ultimate fate out of fear of saying too much. Just know that he was a cruel victim of irony in a world where, true to Oscar Wilde’s belief, no good deed goes unpunished.
Movie review: American Sniper’ is about war’s toll
By Al Alexander