NB: these are my notes on the film, not a review – so you might not want to read them if you’ve not seen it yet.
In Clint Eastwood’s filmography as a director, this seems like a latterday revision of Heartbreak Ridge – his study of a career military man who can function only at high alert and ‘ought to be kept in a case marked “break glass only in the time of war”’. One reason that film, in which Eastwood cast himself as the tough but crazed sergeant, is seldom remembered alongside Unforgiven or The Outlaw Josey Wales or even The Gauntlet or Gran Torino is that the war its hero redeems himself in is the US invasion of Grenada, a conflict the movie tries to say evens the score after the draw of Korea and the loss of Vietnam. This biopic of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) has a more substantial, yet even more complicated war to deal with, though it reduces the reasons for the Second Iraq War and Kyle’s involvement with it well offscreen.
Kyle never questions that he’s in the country in response to 9/11 and the ‘savages’ he is pitted against are characterised as affiliated with Al Qaeda rather than anything to do with Saddam Hussein – who isn’t even mentioned. It’s an incisive character study made by a director with old-school confidence – expressing the cool of 1970s-style cinema rather than the jitters of The Hurt Locker (with which it has some plot similarities) – and takes its longish running time at a fair old clip, making for a breathtaking rush through an American life. The trailer took an unusual, effective tack by presenting an early scene as Kyle is on a rooftop in Fallujah with his rifle and his spotter as a child and his mother walk towards an American convoy with what seems to be a grenade. The spotter cautions Kyle that if he’s wrong, he’ll be sent to Leavenworth, and he pauses … the trailer cuts on the question of whether he’ll shoot a child, and the film detours into a flashback biopic that covers childhood, hunting, rodeo, a younger brother, brutal SEAL training (the only waterboarding that matters in this War on Terror film), courtship (with Sienna Miller working hard in the traditionally irksome wife-back-home role) and exposure to terrorist news items that motivates the struggle (in another context, you’d call this radicalisation). Only then do we come back to the roof, and Kyle kills the child and his mother, starting on the path which will earn him the nickname of ‘the Legend’.
Kyle insists he feels no guilt and that he only regrets the American lives he didn’t save, but the film allows cracks to show … with the narrative twisting out of control of the filmmakers as they have to end with an event that hadn’t happened when the project was initiated as Kyle is himself killed by a traumatised veteran he was trying to help with a bonding session on a shooting range. Eastwood stages this obliquely, with an ominous little domestic sequence as Kyle plays cowboy games with a (loaded? real?) gun which he leaves propped up over a door like a bucket set for a slapstick fall and then drives off with a scary-looking guy only for a caption and footage of his real funeral to tie things up. In Eastwood’s cinema, snipers haven’t been good guys before … remember Scorpio in Dirty Harry and the assassin in In the Line of Fire, and this pits Kyle against a Syrian Olympian shooter known as ‘Mustafa’ who makes equally legendary kill shots against Americans (and mocks his kills by videoing them). The last time Eastwood made an all-out tribute to American military heroism, he felt obliged to follow it up with a view from the other side, matching Flags of Our Fathers against Letters From Iwo Jima; here, perhaps, he needs to complete the picture with a film about Kyle’s murderer, a veteran who was presumably completely unable to reconcile with his experiences, or about Mustafa, also a foreigner in Iraq and perhaps more like Kyle than either would want to admit.
Objections have been raised to the tidying-away of some of the real Kyle’s less appealing aspects, and Cooper plays him very credibly as a man who makes it as a war hero because he doesn’t think too deeply – a brief encounter with his brother, who has come to Iraq in imitation of him and is overwhelmingly disgusted with the place, shows how much Kyle is able to ignore. Like most of Eastwood’s genre films, it isn’t short on cliché – the nagging wife who wants her hero home, the echoing bugle at a comrade’s funeral, the boozy self-pity of macho Americans, the profane camaraderie – but it’s still a powerful piece of work, and by no means as complicatedly flag-waving as it might have been.