The ambiguity of war and violence gets a new twist in Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper,” the true-life story of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper, who also produced), “the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history.” The complex psychological drama, which is gaining Oscar momentum, balances the conflict between military duty and family responsibility. Editorially, the tempo and timing posed a new challenge to Joel Cox, who has cut more than 30 movies for Eastwood (winning an Oscar for “Unforgiven”), and Gary Roach, who joined the editorial team 18 years ago with “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”
“Clint told us before we started that this movie was going to be made in the editing room, which is not something he normally says,” remarks Cox. “It’s about the difficulty of balancing life, going back and forth between home and the war in Iraq. So the style of editing is different than other films we’ve done. Chris is drawn to the war because of his soldier buddies, but then he’s drawn to be home with the family. It’s tearing him up and that’s what we were trying to get on screen in the editing.”
“I think it was a very good balance between the war and the home life,” adds Roach. “You have a lot of good war movies — ‘Lone Survivor.’ ‘Fury’ — but not what it’s like to be home like this movie.”
With cinematographer Tom Stern shooting digitally with the Alexa for the second consecutive time after “Jersey Boys,” Eastwood liked not having to reload, which allowed him to stay in the rhythm. This was especially important in capturing “little nuggets” that the director looks for in his actors, which the editors say Cooper also appreciated after immersing himself totally in the mindset of Kyle.
“American Sniper” opens with Kyle’s first combat assignment, in which he must decide if it’s necessary to kill a mother and son to prevent a suicide attack, cross-cutting memories of his wedding and the birth of his first child. “We put out a trailer that is basically the first scene in the film,” Roach relates. “It’s very rarely done in this style. Clint and I talked about it, interweaving stuff, and the guys that worked on the trailer did a nice job. You’re right there in the middle of it and then we had to tell the story of how these two brothers wound up in the service without taking too much time.”
“Bradley was really good with his body language in conveying the apprehension of having to kill a child down to the breathing,” Cox adds. “There was so much footage and coverage of what Clint was shooting, and there was the second unit that shot massive amounts of rooftops and people coming to the buildings. Putting that together and then adding the visual effects was also a challenge. They had some sand blowing through that but not what it turned out to be.”
There’s also propulsive cross-cutting with Mustafa, a fictitious rival sniper, and a sadistic terrorist known as The Butcher, who uses an electric drill on his victims. But one of Cox’s favorite scenes involves Kyle’s wife Taya (Sienna Miller) warning him that if he returns to Iraq again, he might not have a family to come home to. “And he just looks at her and holds her, but he’s torn. How their relationship breaks down is part of its own story.”
The idea of concluding with actual footage from the 200-mile funeral procession (Kyle was killed during an incident at a shooting range in Texas) came about at the last minute. “Joel and I pulled some stuff off the internet and started playing with that and pulling it together,” Roach recalls. “We realized that was a very powerful way to end the film.”