As a young boy, which is to say before he grows up into a burly, bearded Bradley Cooper, Chris Kyle receives a lesson in life from his strict Texan father. The world, according to Dad, is divided into sheep, wolves and sheepdogs, those rare, righteous souls called to protect the innocent from the wicked.
It?s a tough, stark view of the order of things, one that guides Chris in his subsequent career as a Navy SEAL sniper and one that has, with some modification, informed much of the work of Clint Eastwood, the director of American Sniper. Faithful in shape and spirit to the real Chris Kyle?s memoir, American Sniper also reaffirms Eastwood?s commitment to the themes of vengeance and justice in a fallen world. In the universe of his films - a universe where the existence of evil is a given - violence is a moral necessity, albeit one that often exacts a cost from those who must wield it in the service of good.
The real-life merits of this idea are arguable, to say the least. As an ethical touchstone or a political principle, it certainly has its dangers. But a lot of great movies, including several of Eastwood?s, arise from the simple premise of a fight to the death between good guys and bad guys. American Sniper is not quite among them, but much of its considerable power derives from the clarity and sincerity of its bedrock convictions. Less a war movie than a Western - the story of a lone gunslinger facing down his nemesis in a dusty, lawless place - it is blunt and effective, though also troubling.
Cooper keeps a lid on his natural, mischievous charm without entirely suppressing it. His Chris Kyle is a loyal friend and a brave warrior, but Cooper and Eastwood, working from a script by Jason Hall, decline to make him a saint. Some of the liveliest and most memorable scenes in American Sniper are celebrations of the profane, aggressive humor and endless teasing that men in combat deploy to relieve the tension. Chris? courtship and marriage - to Taya, played by Sienna Miller - are rendered a bit more stiffly, but the warmth and ease that are among Eastwood?s underappreciated virtues make their way into the movie?s brief forays into romance and domesticity.
Mostly, though, we are in Iraq, where Kyle served four tours of duty, racking up 160 confirmed kills. He approaches his work with steady nerves and a clear conscience, banishing the doubt and fatalism that afflict some of his comrades and buttressed by the unambiguous depravity of his enemies. These are people who use women and children as suicide bombers, who mutilate and torture anyone who opposes them, who ambush U.S. Marines in the street. Giving them cover is Kyle?s nemesis and sinister doppelg?nger, a shadowy sharpshooter rumored to be a Syrian Olympic medalist.
Remorse is out of the question, which is not to say that Kyle doesn?t suffer. (Kyle?s death in 2013, at the hands of a disturbed fellow veteran, casts a somber shadow over the movie, though Eastwood avoids the obvious trap of using it as a foreshadowing device.) American Sniper doesn?t flinch from portraying the toll of his service on his psyche and his marriage, though it may tidy up the damage a bit too quickly and neatly. But this, too, is part of the film?s loyalty to its hero?s understanding of himself and his work.
Or, you might say, its commitment to printing his legend. ?Legend? is one of the nicknames Kyle earns from his admiring fellow servicemen, who are in awe of his bravery and skill, and Eastwood engages in his share of mythmaking. This is less a matter of the way he tells the true story than in the way he edits the history in which it is embedded. Terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies in 1998 inspired Kyle to enlist, and his resolve is fortified when he sees the World Trade Center collapse on Sept. 11, 2001. In Iraq, his foes are identified only and repeatedly as al-Qaida.
The politics of the Iraq war are entirely absent, which is a political statement in its own right. And though George W. Bush?s name is never invoked, American Sniper can be seen as an expression of nostalgia for his Manichaean approach to foreign policy. It can equally - and this may amount to the same thing - be seen as upholding the Hollywood Western tradition of turning complicated historical events and characters into fables and heroes. In other words, it?s only a movie.