A few hours before AFI Fest’s surprise world premiere of “American Sniper,” NPR’s Fresh Air ran a segment on something called moral injury. A new name for an old problem, it describes the response many veterans of war have to actions and experiences that prove necessary in the fog of war but haunt them upon their return stateside. Clint Eastwood’s deceptively straightforward take on the life of decorated marksman Chris Kyle is more rife with this sort of quandary than it initially appears. Operating as a standard war drama in the early going, it slowly transitions into a study of the battle that awaits on the homefront.
A broad-shouldered Bradley Cooper plays Kyle, who registered some 160+ confirmed kills over four tours of duty in Iraq. Though Eastwood’s quick style focuses more on in-the-moment decision-making than an explicit view of the introspection that follows, we do catch glimpses of what made Kyle into the exceptional man and soldier he eventually becomes.
A flashback in which his father sorts people into three categories (sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs) explains his natural inclination toward protecting his loved ones, while witnessing the 9/11 attacks on television only serves to further embolden him. This is the greatest country on the planet, he explains when asked about his motivations by the military recruiter who enlists him, and he’ll gladly do anything to protect it—including lay down his own life. It’s that simple for him. There’s no internal conflict, no grey area between right and wrong.
That attitude serves him well in combat, and it’s only when he’s on leave between tours that we’re allowed to see the toll his time over there has taken on him. Though Kyle shrugs it off when a doctor tells him his blood pressure is dangerously high, he gets visibly uncomfortable when a soldier whose life he saved thanks him for his service and dodges every war-related question his wife (Sienna Miller) asks him. As he returns to the front time and again, these once-distinct aspects of his life merge with increasingly nerve-jangling results. Kyle gets calls from his wife in the middle of firefights, echoes of which he later hears while sitting alone in his living room. “I need you to be human again,” she tells him eventually, knowing all too well that the man sitting in front of her is somehow different from the one she married.
Eastwood observes these gradual changes in his signature low-key style. Kyle is loath to draw attention to the ways in which his experiences have affected him, and the octogenarian filmmaker is in no rush to draw them to the fore either. Propulsive battle sequences in which sandstorms make the fog of war quite literal are the ostensible focus of “American Sniper,” but the real tension comes from our anticipation of how they’ll affect the life this sharpshooter is reluctant to return to until he feels he’s done everything he possibly can.
The role represents a comfortable middle ground between the frat-house antics of Cooper’s “Hangover” glory days and the prestige pictures he’s transitioned into over the last few years. Kyle is laconic and likable, a salt-of-the-earth type whose quiet confidence makes him indispensable in times of crisis. His fellow soldiers comes to refer to him as “Legend,” his own identity subsumed by the superheroic persona that he’s only partially responsible for crafting. Serving as a beacon of hope for his brothers in arms is a burden, but one he shoulders willingly.
The film’s singular focus on Kyle comes at the expense of any well-developed secondary characters. His fellow soldiers aren’t characterized much more deeply than his enemies, nor is his perpetually concerned better half. But if Eastwood doesn’t devote much time to the kind of nuanced concerns that made “Letters from Iwo Jima” so worthwhile, it’s mainly because Kyle doesn’t have time for them either. The few soldiers who allow the existential quandaries of their situation to weigh too heavily on their minds and consciences are not only ineffective but dangerous to be around. Kyle survives more than 1,000 days in the thick of it because of his single-mindedness, not in spite of it, which isn’t to say he makes it home entirely unscathed.
“American Sniper” premiered this week at AFI Fest. It opens nationwide on December 25.