Wednesday 11 February 2015

Movie Review: American Sniper (2014)

An impressive story of war and its brutal impacts, American Sniper celebrates the most lethal sniper in the Unites States military history, but also examines the lasting and far-reaching damage caused by war at the most personal levels.

Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) was brought up in Texas, and demonstrated an aptitude for hunting at a young age. He drifted into adulthood and a potential career as a rodeo cowboy before finding his calling and enlisting in the Navy SEALs. While undergoing the brutal training program and honing his skills as a military sniper, he meets Taya (Sienna Miller), and soon after their wedding Kyle is deployed to Iraq as a sniper in the post September 11, 2001 world.

In the urban carnage created by the US invasion of Iraq, Kyle's mission is to protect on-the-ground troops by eliminating threats from elevated vantage points. He kills and kills again, including enemy combatants and men, women and children readying grenades and improvised explosive devices. Kyle establishes himself as a legend for his sharp-shooting skills, but all the killing takes its toll. Back in Texas, with a growing family, Kyle is detached, unable to cope, and exhibits PTSD symptoms. His only escape is to repeatedly re-enlist and return to the war zone. By the time he embarks on his fourth tour of duty, his home life is in tatters. his emotions are bottled up and his nerves are shattered.

A relentless descent into the battle zone and into the human damage caused by war, American Sniper is a brilliant exploration of the stress and dysfunction spawned in battle and embedded into the sturdiest of souls. Director Clint Eastwood creates unrelenting tension on the streets of Baghdad, and then carries the mental destruction (in the case of Kyle) and the physical disability (suffered by many other veterans) to the heart of the United States. The modern psychological cost of war in individual human terms has rarely been as well conveyed on the screen.

Based on Kyle's autobiographical book of the same name adapted by Jason Hall, American Sniper portrays Kyle as the perfect soldier. Taught to be a "sheepdog" from a young age, Kyle's views of the world are simple, and this allows him to pull the trigger while aiming at anyone who falls into the "wolf" category. Kyle is unconcerned with the complexities of war and its causes and is happy to serve his country by killing hundreds of enemies, and the film derives its power by portraying the horrible mental devastation suffered by the most straightforward of soldiers. If even he can fall victim to battlefield trauma, how high is the cost among more complex men and women who pause to think about the purpose of war and the families of their targets?

American Sniper also addresses the hero-worship culture, and portrays Kyle as a man whose exploits are quick to earn plaudits from fellow soldiers, but whose achievements mean very little back at home. Between his tours of duty Kyle rages that the Unites States appears oblivious to the war going on in Iraq, and in Texas he is just a husband and dad who can't seem to focus on either job. It's back on the dusty streets of Iraq that he is now in his element, and a life of heroically facing danger, violence and death becomes the only life that he can properly function in.

Eastwood relentlessly builds the tension within American Sniper, the film piling on the pressure with expertly executed battle scenes that promise death at any instant, Marines kicking down doors and going house to house to search for insurgents while Kyle keeps watch through his scope, every local Iraqi a potential target. The film is awash with sudden bullet impacts, intense fire fights, and the nervousness that comes with knowing that things are about to go very wrong, but not knowing exactly how, when, and where. Kyle's actions do lead to innocent victims getting hurt and badly, and as many kills as he does register, he is most distressed by the Marines who got hurt on his watch because he was unable to neutralize enough enemy threats.

Bradley Cooper delivers another excellent performance, bulking up into the muscular body of a dedicated SEAL but maintaining the innocent spirit of a soldier serving his country as best as he knows how and unsure how to deal with the distorted aftermath. Sienna Miller anchors the US-based scenes as the young wife and then mother abandoned by a husband who is absent either physically or mentally. Miller's highlight comes early, Taya's initial barroom meeting with Kyle establishing her credentials as a woman who will demand to set the agenda.

Explosive, tense and thoughtful, American Sniper hits all its targets.

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