For the past twenty years, one-time screen superstar Clint Eastwood has been more active behind the camera than in front of it, plugging along with his old school filmmaking with a consistency that is hard to match. He’s already won Best Picture and Best Director Oscars twice (for Unforgiven, 1992, and Million Dollar Baby, 2004). And at age 85, he had the biggest hit of his career: American Sniper, based on the memoir by Navy SEAL sharpshooter Chris Kyle. The real-life Kyle who racked up more confirmed kills during his tour of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq than any other marksman in U.S. Navy history. He was also, as expressed in memoir, an unrepentant bigot who saw the Iraqis as animals and admitted that he found killing people “fun.”
The movie has more in its mind than exploring Kyle’s psyche, or at least this aspect of it. He’s played by Bradley Cooper, who pumped up for the role and plays the part with unshakable belief and confidence in his mission, and the film is about what inspired him to enlist and the toll of combat on his psyche. Kyle has a sense of duty and honor that is ignited when American embassies are attacked overseas, and as his commitment (and reputation as a marksman) grows, his ability to function stateside as a husband and father diminishes. He’s more comfortable leading combat missions than being there to support his wife Taya (Sienna Miller), who is torn apart every time to re-ups for another tour of duty. Eastwood’s clean, strong storytelling is perfect for the story and his direction of the combat scenes is all the more powerful for its clarity and focus. Kyle has to make life and death decisions in the field. His targets include women and children. He doesn’t want to kill any innocents, but protecting his men is his mission. And that takes a toll.
Eastwood steers clear of politics—it’s not about questioning the mission, it’s about the toll the mission takes on victims and survivors alike. Like previous Eastwood films, it shows how the skills and temperament necessary to be a good (if not great) soldier in combat are a detriment to living in peacetime. And while conservatives can appreciate the film’s valorization of service and the military culture of duty and comradeship, liberals can appreciate how that same military culture that turned them into soldiers fails to retrain them for stateside life. For that, Kyle turns to fellow vets and once again becomes a leader of men.
This film was an unexpected blockbuster, earning over $350 million in the U.S, and it was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Cooper), Best Adapted Screenplay, and it won for Best Achievement in Sound Editing.
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For a provocative contrast between the film and the source material, read Lindy West’s essay for The Guardian.