Twenty-two years ago, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgivenserved up an eloquent encapsulation of what it means to take a life: “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. You take away all he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have.”
The late Chris Kyle, the hero of Eastwood’s new movie American Sniper, might have an appropriate answer: Try killing 160.
That’s how many official kills were credited to the sharpshooting Texan, the most in American military history. As played by Bradley Cooper, Kyle absorbed his role, embraced his duty, but turned into a husk of a man once each of his four tours in Iraq was finished. Though it never uses the term “PTSD,” American Sniper, at its best, is a devastating portrait of post-traumatic stress disorder.
This is some of Cooper’s best work. He plays Kyle as a sort of gregarious introvert. Kyle’s a natural at his job — he’s nicknamed “Legend” during his first tour — and he doesn’t question his allegiance to God and country. But as a human being, he feels the strain of his specialty, of putting strangers in his cross hairs and blowing them away — men, women and children. After each kill, he buries his forehead into his forearm and exhales. Then it’s time to re-aim.
Kyle’s story is well-known around these parts. An Odessa native and Navy SEAL, he was killed in 2013 at a Glen Rose gun range, allegedly by one of
the veterans he took shooting as a therapeutic endeavor. He was given a hero’s funeral at Cowboys Stadium, footage of which is shown at the end of the film. Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall have the good taste to not depict the killing.
Eastwood, Hall and especially Cooper walk the line between Kyle’s valor and his torment. The movie is strongest when Kyle is home, as his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller, also strong), wonders whether the man who was her husband might re-enter the land of the living. Cooper turns Kyle’s emotional vacancy into a vivid presence. He wears it in the hollow eyes, and the clenched jaw, and the monosyllabic shutdown when anyone expresses concern.
The film has its moments on the front as well, as Eastwood and his longtime director of photography Tom Stern conjure the experiences of the hunter and the hunted. But many of the firefights blur into one another and stall the narrative. American Sniper, based on Kyle’s own book, feels leaner than Eastwood’s last few movies, but it could still benefit from some more cohesive takes and a little bit off the top. At 132 minutes,Sniper could easily lose 20 minutes and emerge a more satisfying movie.
AMERICAN SNIPER (B+)
Directed by Clint Eastwood. R (strong and disturbing war violence, and language throughout including sexual references). 132 mins. At the AMC NorthPark.