Something is real if not quite factual in American Sniper. Bradley Cooper portrays the late Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL sniper credited with 160 kills during four tours of duty in Iraq. The movie ennobles Kyle — he is the first Iraq War movie character who has the qualities of a hero — which goes against certain biographical facts. But those facts hardly matter when you see Cooper turn himself into the type of a big, imposing working-class white American male from a Midwestern or Southern state — homegrown yet foreign to mainstream film culture, which usually depicts such men as ignorant, insensitive boors.
This characterization speaks for those forgotten or demeaned due to the culture’s East Coast and Hollywood bourgeois bias. Cooper’s beefed-up body recalls the solid physical armor of athletes who are modest about their prowess. Kyle’s skill with weaponry was taught to him by his hunter-Christian father (alpha-jawed Ben Reed). That he uses his “gift” in military service, backed by harsh-taught gallantry, counters the American media’s past ten years of antipathy. That antipathy is voiced when a woman attacks Kyle’s self-confidence but he argues “Why would you say I’m self-centered? I’d lay down my life for my country.”
Cooper nails that line — softly. Making Kyle’s sentiment believable — so it sounds natural, sincere as a vow — raises American Sniper above such Iraq films as The Hurt Locker, In the Valley of Elah, or Stop-Loss. Compare Cooper’s Star Wars Storm Trooper strut to Channing Tatum’s oafish gorilla step in Foxcatcher and you have the visible difference between an ambivalent American movie and an anti-American one. Cooper romanticizes the guileless, unsophisticated virtues of cowboys, jocks and working men while Tatum (and a porky Mark Ruffalo, both under the smug guidance of politically decadent Bennett Miller) appeals to Blue State cynicism. Recent movies have lacked this kind of empathy and the news media only perpetuate it when reporting on our wounded warriors. But the way Cooper essays Kyle gives the respect popular audiences hunger for.
At its best, American Sniper is a Sergeant York for Millennials. We’re mired in an elite media culture that doesn’t sincerely appreciate military work (“Thank you for your service” expresses hollow, rote gratitude, as if under p.c. duress). This disconnection originated with the Vietnam war, so American Sniper is not about tradition as Sergeant York was in recreating WWI at the start of WWII. Instead, it’s a defense of character.
“I’m not a redneck, I’m Texan” Cooper drawls. He not only rejects the good ol’ boy stereotype but recognizes the ethos of working-class folk who largely comprise the Iraq and Afghanistan forces. It’s the bravest masculine portrait an American film actor has done since Chadwick Boseman’s James Brown.
Brave and maybe necessary. Cooper marches in the other direction from hipster actors (Clooney, Damon) still holding on to their Bush 43 resentment. Without showing off his political position, he demonstrates cultural allegiance. Cooper’s early film roles in Wedding Crashers and the swill of The Hangover series were startling for his combination of snark and cockiness — the waste Hollywood makes of the acting profession (c.f. Robert Downey, Jr.). Since Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, Cooper’s icy blue eyes have developed surprising sensitivity. They flicker with warmth here. Kyle sees the war, and his lethal role in it, complexly.
Caution is heard in Kyle’s breathing whenever he aims. Taking one life after another, he becomes, ironically, more human — that is, stymied and remorseful by PTSD yet duty-bound. His eyes convey a deep, painful cost and his rolling Southern lilt draws him so close you are reminded how movies, from Sergeant York to The Best Years of Our Lives to From Here to Eternity to Sam Fuller’s war sermonizing to John Ford’s nostalgic The Long Grey Line, once saw integrity in American discipline and sacrifice.
Putting “sniper” in the film’s title estranges its valorous point. Yet director Clint Eastwood also puts a rainbow over Kyle’s head during his rough SEAL training (complete with cliché black Drill Instructor and Heartbreak Ridge-style camaraderie). Too much of American Sniper is merely conventional, while Cooper, bulked up like an Oscar stunt, has gone past it to something genuine.
American Sniper’s got that Eastwood problem: terse but banal. It covers up lack of commitment with Eastwood’s typical middle-of-the-road Hollywood Conserva-liberal fudging on issues of patriotism and war fatigue.
Jason Hall’s over-determined script peaks early: When Kyle makes his first life-or-death decision, his concentration shifts to a boyhood flashback (richer than Linklater‘s Boyhood) that purifies his conflict, back to the dinner table and Baptist teaching about right and wrong, good and evil. This bold transition and follow-through are breathtaking — worthy of Spielberg (the film’s original director). A montage featuring Kyle’s eye magnified at the other end of his gunsight equals the finest screen depictions of war. But a concluding sequence showing the Hell of war in a solarized dust storm is far less successful, murky.
American Sniper fulfills the moral query of the quasi-religious sniper scenes in Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg did not deplete the subject of war ambivalence and Eastwood does not enrich it. But Bradley Cooper does.
— Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review Online and received the American Book Award’s Anti-Censorship prize. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.