One of the most taboo subjects in mainstream film is also one that has shaped the past decade of American culture: the September 11 Attacks. It has created an uncertainty that still resides in the culture and placed a lot of question around identity and patriotism in the modern era. While war films are nothing new, there seems to be a timid cry for modern film makers to approach contemporary affairs on film. With director Clint Eastwood's controversial American Sniper, he doesn't so much make a film about war, but reminds us what's so appealing and tragic about the cinematic interpretation. With a gut wrenching performance by Bradley Cooper, he has not only created one of his strongest movies, but a quintessential film about the trauma of war the likes of which haven't been seen and popularly dissected since The Deer Hunter in 1978.
The story focuses around soldier Chris Kyle (Cooper), who becomes known as the deadliest sniper in American history with a bounty of $180,000 on his head from the terrorists. Opening on a shot present in the trailer, Kyle is forced to consider shooting a child who plans to bomb soldiers. It is a jarring introduction and one that paints the moral complexity that runs through the rest of the film. While he fights for justice, there's still the sense of humanity that runs through Kyle, nervous about hurting innocent lives. Like all wars, the answer isn't specifically clear and the results of this action become immediately clear. He has a thankless job that has earned him the nickname "Legend," even though he personally doesn't want that honor. Shooting people isn't as glamorous as many think and instead is used as protection.
From there, the film emerges into the bigger story of Kyle's life and motivations to join the military after a nice life in Texas at a rodeo. Eastwood gives him the familiar cowboy aesthetic to which he must prove himself as a contemporary sort. To watch Cooper transform over the course of the movie's running time from a cocky man to a damaged individual forever paranoid of inconsequential mishaps is what gives the film a particular edge. Much like The Deer Hunter, the film's biggest success is not specifically in the violence, but in the aftermath in which the soldier must live on, figuring out how to deal with permanent trauma. In much the same way, Cooper's brilliance comes in the reservation and internalizing the post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that keeps taking him back to war, forever obsessed with saving more lives.
The supporting cast feels lived in with various roles filled in by veterans and experienced professionals. We watch as their lives are shaped by their desire to be patriotic and the panic that surfaces when put in the way of danger. The film is unrepentant, allowing chaos to build and the bombastic music to fluctuate with the moment. Next to the performances, the film's biggest success comes in drawing out the tension, allowing the uncertainty to haunt the audience along with the soldiers. The results are a grabbed bag with the failures being disturbing. It becomes overwhelming and soon the trauma that Kyle faced is thrown onto the audience. It isn't done overbearingly either, instead choosing to be laid on well enough for each development of Kyle's PTSD to feel earned.
Yes, the film is mired in controversy, especially surrounding the depiction Iraqis. However, the film takes caution in establishing the difference between terrorists and civilians (as one conversation goes: they were moved out), who remain predominantly nonexistent in the film. From there the dangers grow and even the simplest of interaction becomes a life or death situation. The film manages to blur the line between humanity and terrorism in unexpected ways with the audience force to consider just how hard Kyle's job inevitably is. He is by all means a hero with a thankless job. He should be honored as such. Still, with PTSD looming in his psyche, it his hard for those moments to clarify themselves.
American Sniper is by all means a quintessential film about a very touchy subject. Thanks to Eastwood's unrepentant approach to letting the actions not be overthrown with needless sympathies, he has created one of the most complex looks at patriotism that is heart breaking and powerful in ways that transcend its controversy. Kyle may be a man forever filled with regret, but he reflects a contemporary soldier better than most mainstream depictions have done. Cooper definitely earns that Oscar nomination for a performance full of nuanced tics and the increasing disconnect he has towards everyone from soldiers to family. Still, the film is as a whole a portrait of the dark side of what it means to be a military legend.