An American sniper with over 160 enemy kills wrestles with his life at war and the pressures of family life at home.
There's no denying Clint Eastwood is a living legend and American Sniper marks his 34th film as director. And it's certainly his best in years, not to mention a spry action effort for such an aging filmmaker.
The script (based on the book American Sniper) by Jason Hall is an efficient beast, zipping through the early days of real-life Texan Chris Kyle as he finds a new calling in the Navy SEALS, meets a lovely lady (Sienna Miller) and gets married. In the wake of 9/11 he takes his first tour to Iraq, where his legend begins.
In some ways, this is the story of a person who was really, really good at killing folks from a distance. Kyle was credited with 160 enemy kills but the real number may have been upwards of 250, making him the most effective sniper in recorded US history. And that's an element of the character which the film tries to treat fairly – he's a good man, doing his job to protect his fellow soldiers from the enemy – but he's also a killer of hundreds of people.
That weight takes it toll on Kyle as the story progresses, particularly in the moments when he has to return to normal life, to his family and friends and a world where death doesn't lie around every corner. The treatment of PTSD in the film is subtle and measured, with Kyle seeming totally calm on the surface and only rarely showing the turmoil inside.
For his part, star Bradley Cooper sells these moments well. Looking considerably beefed up for the part, he's got an extra-Texan drawl and an easy charm which doesn't feel forced and he looks every inch the soldier in fatigues. It's not the most demanding role, and you won't see him pick up many awards, but its unfussy and watchable.
That pretty much goes for the film as well. Eastwood is a famously laid back director and the performances reflect that. The pace is also quite unhurried and there are signs of a lack of care in the details, like indifferent child performances and a couple of hilariously bad dummy infants which are already the subject of internet fame.
The action scenes are surprisingly punchy – edited with an eye for geography and common sense and with some nice moments of tension. They're also frequently violent with a couple of particularly shocking scenes that sell the horror of war through a scope.
Despite its subject matter, American Sniper never felt like it was flying the flag for all things USA. There's some alarming double-speak and a fine line in justifying the conflict but Kyle never seems to see himself as a hero, despite many people telling him so. And Eastwood doesn't go out of his way to put the soldier on a pedestal, all the way up to the ending which takes its cues from real life.
Technically accomplished and stocked with decent peformances, American Sniper is a bit of a paint-by-numbers true-life story. It has its moments as an effective war flick but is otherwise a bit forgettable.