Past the Popcorn: Bradley Cooper Will Blow You Away in American Sniper

by Jeff Walls

American Sniper is a return to form of sorts for director Clint Eastwood, following a couple of underwhelming releases in J. Edgar and last year’s Jersey Boys.  The new film is based on the 2012 book that came with the subtitle “The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History.”  The book and the movie tell the story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, a trained sniper who served four tours in Iraq.  During those four tours, Kyle would be credited with 160 confirmed kills, making him, as the subtitle to the book suggests, the most deadly sniper in American history.

Raised by his father to understand the importance of patriotism and protecting others, Kyle enlists in the Navy after learning about a terrorist attack on a U.S. embassy.  He becomes a SEAL and is trained as a sniper.  Following the attack of September 11th, Kyle is sent to Iraq where he will spend most of his time protecting his fellow American soldiers from a high perch.

The movie cuts back and forth between Kyle’s four tours in Iraq with his life back home.  Kyle married his wife just before first being sent to Iraq and he returns just in time to witness the birth of his first child.  Although Kyle insists that he is fine, his wife is concerned that he is being haunted by the horrible acts he has either witnessed or perpetrated while in Iraq and she is concerned.  Kyle, however, feels that he needs to be over there performing his patriotic duty of protecting his fellow soldiers.

american-sniper-insetThe highlight of the movie is the performance of Bradley Cooper as Kyle.  Cooper has come a long way as an actor over the past few years and it truly shows in American Sniper.  Cooper bulked up physically for the role and also worked with a dialect coach to nail the Texas accent.  As a result, he almost completely disappears into the character.

It is easy to root for Cooper as Kyle, but that has inspired some of the early criticism against the movie.  In the movie, the Americans are the good guys and the Iraqis are the bad guys.  It is black and white; there is no gray.  As a result, the early return of the movie differs depending on the viewer’s personal and political views.  Both Cooper and Eastwood have said that they did not intend to make a movie about the war, but rather about the man, so we will focus on that.

The most intense sequences in the movie are the moments when Kyle has a target in his sights and must decide in the moment whether or not to fire.  “They will fry you if you are wrong,” one of his fellow soldiers tells him at one of these crucial moments.  It is a horrible split-second choice that none of us in the audience can imagine having to make, which leads us to be sweating on the edge of our seats.

The movie did not focus on these moments as much as I expected it to, however, and the rest of the military action in the movie does not stand out from any other movie set in the same environment.  Often, it even feels like something taken straight out of a violent video game.  This lessens the impact of the movie somewhat in the second act, between the tense opening and the emotional finale.  The story away from the battle zone also feels somewhat familiar and it does not venture far into territory that hasn’t already been explored in dozens of returning veteran movies.

Despite not feeling especially original, the movie does entertain and I found myself emotionally invested in the character of Chris Kyle by the movie’s tough conclusion.  And Bradley Cooper’s performance raises it above many of the movie’s contemporaries.

American Sniper opens today at the AMC Southcenter 16 and AMC Kent Station 14. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again? Eat local before you go!

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