Hollywood icon Clint Eastwood, the 85 year old actor turned director, has turned out a deeply disturbing movie by bringing the autobiography of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle to the screen. Bradley Cooper stars as Kyle, a good ‘ole Texas wannabe cowboy whose visceral patriotism and superb marksmanship combined to give America an under-appreciated hero in the war in Iraq. Credited with more than 160 “kills” during 4 tours of duty, Kyle left the military only to be murdered at a shooting range by a disturbed veteran he was helping to counsel. With unabashed admiration, Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall have delivered a recruiting device for this country’s armed services designed to appeal to those whose love of country is comingled with questions of masculinity, personal honor and an ability to bifurcate personal performance and the examination of one’s moral values.
Not having read the book on which this movie’s based, it’s impossible to know whether Hall’s often glib dialogue accurately expresses Kyle’s persona or whether the film’s gung-ho aura is simply a reflection of what Eastwood wanted to convey. His twin films about the battle for Iwo Jima (Flags of our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima) brillantly recounted the devastating costs of that event from the point of view of combatants on both sides; Sniper makes no effort whatsoever to balance the scales; Kyle and his comrades are consistently valiant under fire and anxious only to avenge the brutish events of 9/11. They take great care to properly distinguish between legitimate military opponents and innocent civilians, only rarely firing their weapons unless fired upon. In contrast, the villains are easy to identify here; they’re vicious brutes, cunning and sneaky as they try to blend into the local population, often violently intimating those who don’t support their bloodthirsty tactics. Our snipers are clean-cut brave men; theirs are swarthy cowards…
Cooper’s nomination as best actor in the current Oscar sweepstakes is bewildering; his Kyle is such a one-dimensional, wide-eyed Boy Scout it’s easy to compare the actor’s performance with that of Gary Cooper in 1941’s overrated Sargent York which lionized a WWI soldier just in time for WWII.
Eastwood straightforward directorial style works well here; he directs the movie’s violent street battles with solid visual mastery so the audience can quickly grasp the dangers that lurk in shadowy doorways and dusty alleys. His use of ariel photography also adds significantly to the claustrophobic feeling of searching buildings “door to door” with little knowledge of what lies behind them.
But violence aside, Eastwood’s depiction of Kyle’s marriage and his role as a father never rises above the perfunctory, nor does the audience ever get a peek inside the mind of this obviously brave but simplistically motivated man. It’s both natural and legitimate for a nation to praise its military heroes-but in this case, it would have been nice to meet one possessed of something more to recommend him than his near-obsessive concern with defending our nation’s honor and his skill with the tools of his trade.
The Verdict? Two and a quarter hours of unabashed hero-worship, punctuated with a great deal of brutal violence.
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