Director Clint Eastwood's new movie, "American Sniper," is not for the faint of heart. It's a powerful, moving, taught, unflinching film, with battle sequences as tense as any in "The Hurt Locker." And Bradley Cooper, as Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history, will break your heart.
The movie is based on a memoir by Kyle, with Scott McEwan and Jim DeFelice. And while the book focused more on the training and technicalities of being a sniper, Eastwood is after far bigger game with this film and has returned to the themes he dealt with in his earlier masterpiece, "Unforgiven."
In that film, Eastwood played a man forced out of his self-imposed pacifism by his search for justice. And in one famous scene, a young gunsel, whining about a pointless, undignified killing, concludes, "Well, I guess he had it coming." To which Eastwood unflinchingly replies, "We all have it coming, kid."
And with that same unblinking eye, Eastwood takes an unsparing look at the business of killing, the business of war, whether it's a silent sniper's bullet coming out of nowhere, or the random, indifferent bullet flying down a dirty street in a fire fight to kill for no reason but dumb, blind bad luck. A roulette wheel of death with everyone in the killing zone caught in the cross-hairs.
And at the end, Eastwood leaves it to the viewer to ponder the terrible cost paid by even the most lauded and celebrated of killers. And the pointless irony of Kyle's death--killed at a shooting range by a troubled Iraq veteran he was trying to help -- the kind of cheap karmic ending that Eastwood wisely doesn't explore. Instead he ends the film with a brief informative coda and real-life footage of Kyle's massive and well attended memorial service, and lets the audience make of it what they will.
While Eastwood's overall theme is men at war, the power of the film comes from the close focus on Kyle. He is portrayed as a man raised with a strong code to be not a sheep or a wolf but a sheepdog, a dog who stands up to protect and guard. As a SEAL, he finds his true home in a profession that fits his core. But, like so many others who followed his path, he was unprepared for the cost he would pay for that choice. Since the audience can see this journey through his eyes, it is in Chris Cooper's splendid performance that the film finds it's heart. And because Eastwood refuses all sentimentality and cheap drama, Kris's life and sad death resonates outward to include all soldiers who serve and suffer.