The strength of idol worship depends on a denial of the fuller, more human picture, and after a lifetime of icon status, Clint Eastwood has had enough of dodging reality. His directorial efforts may vary in subject matter and time period, but they commit to stripping away public figures and groups to their flawed core, and starting the real story there. It’s what connects recent films like “Mystic River” and this year’s misfire “Jersey Boys,” and it’s what extends most prominently into “American Sniper,” Eastwood’s purest and most involving vehicle of tension in years.
In fact, the film is a spiritual sequel to “Flags of Our Fathers,” in that it examines the reasons men enlist and go to war, followed by the untreated costs of returning home afterwards. Bradley Cooper plays Chris Kyle, the ultimate Navy SEAL poster boy: as a sniper for over four tours in Iraq, he earned the nickname “The Devil of Ramadi” by insurgents for his 160 confirmed kills. But thankfully we see more of Cooper’s reactions and eyes — buried in a scope on some far-off rooftop in Fallujah — than we do the results of Kyle’s statistic.
Cooper, bulked up under a sunburned glow and Texas drawl, uses his charm-laden personality as a front, and then reveals a quiet, convincing intensity that emerges when alone with his rifle. We grow used to extended sequences of simply Cooper and his gun, observing the streets below him, and Eastwood — the very definition of workmanlike — finds classic yet immersive ways to make them absolutely gripping. Close-ups of a finger on trigger, a target followed in crosshairs, and the moral consequences of a shot — it’s a familiar mode, but a mode that’s been missing from the director’s recent work. It’s a welcome return.
If you check the credits you won’t notice a main composer on the film, either. That’s because, as opposed to the maudlin orchestras that drowned out Eastwood’s plots in past, he only utilizes a (admittedly overused) percussive drop here as scene punctuation, followed by a hum of bass that rattles the theatre. The rest is silence, letting the actors and geography breathe without giving away the intention. Then, the violence — sudden glimpses of brutality that you’d expect from David Ayer, not Eastwood, images that dig you further into Kyle’s psyche and what each kill does to it.
Jason Hill’s script frames each new tour of duty as a progressively ill-humored punchline: in California Kyle returns to his home and wife Taya (Sienna Miller), registers his newfound emotional distance to society, and adds a new son or daughter to the family before shipping back to Iraq once more. Miller and Cooper share a convincing chemistry, but considering what the stateside scenes need to convey, there is too little weight to their scenes. She sticks to an underwritten scene-by-scene objective cycle — love, question, regret — that falls on a silent Cooper, and the journey doesn’t gain emotional traction as a result.
For all of his restraint and talent in the solo sniper scenes with Cooper, Eastwood unfortunately lets the script keep some extremely misguided elements and supporting performances that threaten to derail the entire film. Chief among them is Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), a fictional Iraqi sniper created in order to allow Kyle and his American unit a clear antagonist. How do we know he’s the main baddie? Witness his chiseled mug, manicured beard, slo-mo emergence from the shadows holding a single bullet, and a “gearing up” montage straight out of “Evil Dead 2.”
Mustafa’s presence jars so significantly with the sparse tone set elsewhere that it undercuts the earned sensitivity of Cooper’s performance, which follows through as a convincing portrait of a hero to fellow soldiers and a slowly cracking soul at home. Eastwood wisely trains the camera on Cooper’s face and keeps it there — he knows his actor can carry the story’s emotion when other aspects fail it. Four or five stunning sequences, including an intense firefight finale set during a sand storm, prove Eastwood still has his own capable handle on cinema as well. But go for the person looking through the scope, and not Eastwood’s bland, trope-filled ’80s actioner gathering steam in his view. [B-]