The story of U.S. Navy Seal Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) isn't exactly an unknown story. Nicknamed "Legend," Kyle is said to be the most lethal sniper in U.S. Military history with more than 160 confirmed kills. Kyle enlisted at the age of 30, the result of the post-9/11 wave of patriotism that swept the country. Kyle, despite the intensity of the task he was given as a sniper, would end up serving four tours of Iraq before finally being told by his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) that it was time to come home.
Directed by 84-year-old Clint Eastwood, American Sniper is a flawed yet fantastic film that is based upon Kyle's own memoir and only subtly references his killing, rather ironically, at the hands of a disturbed veteran he was trying to help as he had done so often before since his return back to the United States.
When you think about actors who could play Chris Kyle and the kind of Texas swagger that he projected, Bradley Cooper isn't the first person to come to mind. Cooper packed on 40 pounds, spent months learning to shoot, and has turned in a performance that isn't so much emotionally resonant as it is a masterful display of dramatic discipline and remarkable layers. While much has deservedly been made about Steve Carell's turn in Foxcatcher, it's pretty easy to say that Cooper's brilliance here is at least his equal and probably a tad more surprising.
While Eastwood spends ample time with Kyle in Iraq, the beauty and the power of American Sniper is that even in playing distant observer Eastwood manages to both allow Kyle to be completely at peace with the actions he has taken while also acknowledging, in subtle and not so subtle ways, how those actions have still impacted Kyle's life in big and small ways. Eastwood doesn't cast doubt on Kyle's absolute willingness to defend his actions, but he adds into that a tangible vulnerability and fracture that increasingly permeates Kyle's life.
As Kyle, Bradley Cooper is so immersed in his character and so naturally embodies him that if you were to look up Youtube videos of Kyle you might have a hard time telling the two apart. Whether you know Cooper from his comedy work or his award-winning work in Silver Linings Playbook, you'll be nothing short of astounded at his amazing work here. While this might seem an unlikely film to have garnered six Oscar nominations, and I'm admittedly in disagreement with at least a couple of them, the simple truth is that this is Cooper's best work to date.
The same is likely true for Sienna Miller, an actress who has occasionally shown hints of depth but who has seldom had an opportunity to tackle such a deep, layered role and she certainly makes the most of it.
Tom Stern's lensing, especially in the film's action sequences, are simply stellar and Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach edit the film to maximize dramatic impact yet very seldom, a scene near the end being a major exception, feeling manipulative or hitting a false note.
American Sniper may be the one Oscar caliber film this year that also has what it takes to be a box-office success. With equal parts action, patriotism, humanity, and brilliant filmmaking, American Sniper may not end up taking hold the golden statuette but it may very well capture the heart of America.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic