Clint Eastwood's "American Sniper" is a lot like its Navy SEAL hero, Chris Kyle -- terse, violent, sure of his convictions and not much in the mood for talk. One of the toughest and least hand-wringing films yet about the soldiers who served in the Iraq War -- and about the physical and emotional price they paid -- "American Sniper" finds Eastwood back in top form as a director and features a career-best performance from its star, Bradley Cooper.
Cooper plays Kyle, a Texas rodeo rider who served four tours in Iraq and became known as the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history, racking up 160 kills. He became famous among his colleagues and even among insurgents, who put an $80,000 bounty on his head. "American Sniper" makes it clear that Kyle was a killing machine: His very first victim, a woman, gives him pause but little remorse.
Eastwood directs "American Sniper" with a blunt, almost unemotional tone. Our soldiers die; their soldiers die. Kyle tromps into action with a rifle and a Bible, and casually refers to the enemy as "savages." The film doesn't apologize for that, nor does it strain itself to show the other side. Based on Kyle's memoir, "American Sniper" mostly says: That's how it was. You don't have to like it.
Just as effective as the war scenes are the scenes at home, when Kyle returns to his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller in a mostly symbolic role), and their children. Kyle is distracted, thinking about his endangered buddies. "You can wait," he tells Taya. "They can't." Here is where Cooper does his strongest work. Looking physically fit but emotionally strained, he puts muscle and flesh on the bare-bones script by Jason Hall.
"American Sniper" hangs a halo, albeit a battered one, over Kyle's head. Kyle is slightly over-patriotized (the film shows him joining the military after 9/11, but in fact he joined before then, in 1999) and has a tendency to be right about every risk and judgment call. The film ends, however, with a chilling reminder of what war can do to its heroes.