American Sniper review: Clint Eastwood scores another direct hit
The veteran director once more shows that age will not weary him with this compelling tale of a flawed hero
Many 84-year-olds would struggle to stay awake long enough to watch a movie, let alone produce and direct one. But Clint Eastwood is no ordinary 84-year-old. The Hollywood icon has been on a roll the past few years, churning out an average of one directorial effort a year, as well as documentaries and acting gigs.
In the past decade alone, he has made two war films, a true-life drama, an action flick, a sports movie, a supernatural fantasy, a political biopic and, most recently, a musical. It's barely six months since Jersey Boys sang and danced into UK cinemas, and now Eastwood gives us American Sniper. As changes of tone go, it couldn't be more pronounced.
Based upon former US Navy SEAL Chris Kyle's memoir of the same name, the film is a tense, engrossing piece of work. But, like the recent Foxcatcher, your enjoyment of it will be influenced by how much you know about Kyle's story before entering the cinema.
For those familiar with the real-life events, you will know it doesn't end well for Kyle. And the final reel will have you leaving the cinema in silence, head bowed.
But first, we meet Kyle as a small boy, being coached in the art of marksmanship by his deer-hunting, God-fearing father. Fast-forward to his twenties, and Kyle is a boozy rodeo cowboy, hanging out with his brother at weekends,.
The no-nonsense Texan is waiting for his calling in life, and he finds it in a US Navy recruitment office. Soon, he's up to his biceps and sunglasses in dead Middle Eastern insurgents, becoming such a skilled and dependable sniper (160 confirmed kills) that the Iraqis put a six-figure bounty on his head. Meanwhile, back home, Kyle's pregnant wife is lonely and scared, and her husband's mental detachment on his brief return visits don't help.
There's obviously something being said here about post-traumatic stress disorder, though Eastwood is too much of a gnarly, old veteran to lay it on thick.
Kyle isn't an easy role to get right. Happily, Eastwood is blessed with a leading man who is every bit as versatile as himself. Bradley Cooper - Phil from The Hangover, Pat from Silver Linings Playbook, Agent DiMaso from American Hustle, the Faceman, Rocket Raccoon - gives the strongest performance of his career, and I'm not just talking about his buffed-up frame.
Cooper imbues Kyle with a humanity that belies the character's billing on the poster as "the most lethal sniper in US history". He's an unreconstructed man's man, for sure, but Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall (Paranoia) have made him more palatable by trimming some of the gung-ho excesses of the ex-SEAL's book.
American Sniper has none of the moral ambivalence that has crept into the war genre in recent times, and it's refreshing. So used are we to filmmakers going out of their way to massage all possible sensibilities that Eastwood's gritty, nuts-and-bolts approach to storytelling feels quite subversive.
The scale isn't as ambitious as the likes of The Hurt Locker or Zero Dark Thirty, but as an account of one man's journey, American Sniper is faultless. The action scenes are also far more exciting than they need to be, with the climactic shoot-'em-up shaming anything in the execrable Taken 3.
Oh, and it's the second release in a fortnight, after Foxcatcher, in which I didn't recognise Sienna Miller, who plays Kyle's wife.