Around the 30-minute mark of American Sniper there’s something that’s not quite a montage, not quite a self-contained series of events, not quite comfortable in that first half-hour of the film. Sniper Chris Kyle spots an insurgent in his scope and he takes him out. A few more lone insurrectionaries crop up, and Kyle fires again. Again. Again. It sounds like a montage, but director Clint Eastwood doesn’t let it play out as such. And it’s fairly quick, cutting from one shot to the next inside the space of a minute and a half. Still, though, there’s something brutal and cold and darkly affecting about this life-of-Kyle in 90 seconds, something that almost singlehandedly elevates American Sniper to the level of a modern classic war film.
I assumed that Sniper would be a lot like The Hurt Locker, judging from the trailers and a few reviews and my admittedly vague knowledge of Chris Kyle’s story. Sniper is a lot like Hurt Locker, to be sure, but it’s not exactly in the way I expected. The similarities, really, are resigned mostly to the aesthetic — and visually, they’re so similar that you might expect Kyle to peek through his scope and spot Will James strutting down the sandy street in his EOD blast suit.
But past that the two films couldn’t be more different. More than a few reviewers have gotten bent out of shape by the “politics” of American Sniper, an attitude that’s probably influenced more by Clint Eastwood’s very vocal support of the Republican Party than by the actual movie. If anything, Sniper is solely focused on Kyle himself while largely disregarding the larger political ramifications of America at war, dealing not with the moral quandary of war but just with the moral quandary of this single soldier. That’s very at odds with Hurt Locker, a film that spends time with Will James but also with his subordinates and superiors, a film that resists being overly political but manages to raise important questions all the same.
But once that easy comparison is brushed aside, American Sniper is still a good film. Eastwood’s had a pretty rough string of directorial efforts these past few years (see Hereafter, J. Edgar, and Jersey Boys, or don’t see them) so it’s nice to see Sniper mostly hit the mark. Part of it must have been fairly straightforward, though, because again, this is a film that focuses tightly on Chris Kyle — and Bradley Cooper is fully Chris Kyle. He’s had a lot of big, emotional roles in the past few years (my favorite of which might be in The Place Beyond the Pines) but he’s never had to carry a film as heavy as this all by himself. He handles it beautifully.
In the aforementioned scene that may or may not be a montage, Cooper’s Kyle is alert and unwavering. Eastwood’s camera is the same for the entirety of American Sniper, leveled and direct even in the most chaotic battle scenes. In the intercut sequences of Kyle stateside between tours, he’s constantly spooked by a lawnmower, a tire being changed, a car about to pass them on the highway. Eastwood spooks us, too, in more than one of the tense scenes in Iraq, with danger to Kyle’s unit coming in the form of something as innocent as a young child. The sniper that Kyle more or less faces off against provides a few of these out-of-nowhere scenes of horror, and they play as if Kyle had been more alert (or if we had) then that horror might have been spotted before it arrived.
Is American Sniper a great war movie? Probably not. But it’s a good war movie, and it’s a great character study of a very distraught soldier. Sniper succumbs to a few clichés along the way — Kyle’s wife deploys the “You’re here but you’re not here” cliché, Kyle himself the “Looks like someone left in a hurry” cliché — but on the whole Eastwood and Cooper craft a focused and ultimately tragic portrait of Chris Kyle. Nominated for a surprising six Oscars (as many nominations as Boyhood), American Sniper is worth a watch.