American Sniper is another of director Clint Eastwood’s uneasy explorations of myth. Though Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is regarded as a hero, known to be the deadliest sniper in U.S. history after having served four tours in the Iraq War, he’s defined by Eastwood as a man who’s relentlessly alone and intangibly unfulfilled. Kyle is often referred to by the nickname “Legend” for his killing tally (over 160 confirmed deaths), but we never see him reveling in acclaim. Kyle’s actualization is derived, fleetingly and such as it is, from picking off a target, which signifies completion of a job that’s murkily associated with honor and valor, as well as the viscerally practical concern of surviving hostile terrain. But the deaths that Kyle is responsible for haunt him when he’s divorced from the direct sensory urgency of combat, as he’s gripped by intangible guilt and by a heightened awareness that constitutes paranoia in the context of stateside life. This film’s version of Kyle is another Eastwood warrior who’s torn between the potential use and disuse of his talents.
This anguish is encapsulated in a haunting opening image that soon becomes a leitmotif. We see Kyle’s face twisted in concentration as he trains the sight of his rifle down on a mother and child walking the deserted streets of Fallujah. Eastwood startlingly grips the audience with his sense of hypnotic silence, which carries suggestions of what might be termed politically apolitical pragmatism (a sniper’s work is, during the moment, a job, even if the stakes are unimaginably magnified). The silence also heightens an awareness of the quotidian details, particularly of Kyle’s hands, as they adjust the focus of the sight, in gestures that serve as a physical representation of the sniper’s mind as it processes a life-or-death decision.
Eastwood doesn’t normally display much of an eye for fluid, telling detail in his films, as he’s a big, blunt moralist with a Sunday school teacher’s idea of symbolism, which is to say that the hyper-vivid precision of his aesthetic here comes as something of a shock. Images hit the viewer and expand on the rebound, such as a shot of Kyle’s eye magnified through the sight of his rifle, or the terrifyingly beautiful vistas of country ravaged by a sandstorm, or the generally astonishing crackerjack editing of the Iraqi gunfights, particularly the first major battle, which confidently juggles, among its variables, a vicious dog, a drill, and the exertions of a rival Syrian sniper. A few of Eastwood’s usual visual liabilities—his underpopulated settings, his point-and-shoot staging of already dramatically obvious confrontations—serve him in a film that, like Unforgiven, thrives on a language of barrenness.
American Sniper boils each of Kyle’s four tours down to a series of sharp, succinct western-movie-like stanzas that are periodically complemented by domestic life and by the sort of foreshadowing tough-guy chatter that was already old hat in the late days of John Wayne. But it’s driven by a presiding acknowledgement of a primal difference of observation: between how outsiders see Kyle as a hero, favoring him in a manner that can be manipulated to serve both political and personal ends, and how Kyle vaguely and uncertainly sees himself. The battle scenes that stand in for Kyle’s military career are so rattling that they render the armchair praise of civilians, or even of other soldiers, embarrassingly quaint by comparison. This film represents one of Eastwood’s most convincing assertions of an often troubling and hypocritical theme in his work: that heroism is a construct carried by people who bear the accompanying burden of a great undertow of alienating sadness, which springs from an intimate knowledge of the chaos that might be growing close to the bounds of “civilized” society’s reach.
Eastwood normally rues the personally costly myth of the hero, only to indulge it with a righteous ass-kicking finale anyway, as he did in the great but thematically incoherent Unforgiven. Or he’ll make a pretense of examining machismo’s ugliness while indulging it anyway, as he did in Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, and Gran Torino. With American Sniper, Eastwood manages to have his art-action cake and to eat it too, as he tethers his set pieces directly to Kyle’s tormented psyche. A heartbreaking ellipsis near the end, between Kyle leaving his house and the commencement of his funeral, serves to suggestively confirm one of this sniper’s worst implicative fears: When the war’s over, he vanishes.