Early on in “American Sniper,” the latest film from director Clint Eastwood, it is explained that the world is made up of three types, sheep, wolves and sheepdogs. Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is a sheepdog, a man predisposed to protecting those around him, whether it is with his fists or with his preferred method weapon of choice, a McMillan TAC-338 Sniper Rifle.
Rodeo rider Kyle is prompted join the Navy SEALS after watching scenes of terror on the news. His natural ability with a gun makes him a deadly sniper and soon he racks up a kill record that earns him the nickname The Legend. Protecting his brothers-in-arms comes with a heavy price, and soon his two realities—his family life stateside with his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) and the world of war—become confused. After four tours of duty and over one hundred confirmed kills, he must adapt to being a father, husband and Navy SEAL.
The first twenty minutes of “American Sniper” are captivating. Eastwood builds tension in the opening minutes and maintains it through a flashback that sets the stage for the action that is to come. It’s crackling, riveting moviemaking that suggests greatness to come.
Unfortunately Eastwood lets it go slack. Like the old saying goes, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” and Eastwood dutifully does so, staging sniper scene after sniper scene, broken up by the more personal story of Kyle’s PTSD.
Some of the war scenes have impact. A firefight during a sand storm is harrowing, but too often the marksman scenes are repetitive and without any real dramatic heft.
On the human side of things Cooper does a good job at subtly playing out Kyle’s inner life. When his wife says, rightly, “If you think this war isn’t changing you, you’re wrong,” Cooper internalizes his feelings and the result is an effectively played and smart representation of how war affects soldiers without any unnecessary histrionics but without this central performance, there wouldn’t be much left here.
“American Sniper” is based on the true story of an American hero but feels like it only tells half the story. War and heroes are complicated things and the ever-growing understanding of PTSD isn’t deepened by soap opera dialogue like, “Even when you’re here, you’re not here.” Despite Cooper’s efforts to humanize Kyle, Eastwood has made a movie about an emblem, not a man.
Overall the movie feels like a well intentioned but shallow salute to the men and women who go to war.