[Screen It]


(2014) (Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller) (R)

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Drama/Action: A gung-ho Navy SEAL serves in Iraq as a highly proficient sniper, unaware of what his repeated tours of duty are doing to him and his marriage.
It's 1998 and Chris Kyle (BRADLEY COOPER) is an aspiring rodeo rider who, like his younger brother, Jeff (KEIR O'DONNELL), had a certain life philosophy instilled into him by his father. And that was that the world is filled with three kinds of people, sheep, wolves and sheepdogs whose jobs are to protect the innocent from those who are evil. When terrorists blow up several American embassies, Chris decides to enlist in the military and ends up becoming a Navy SEAL. It's then that he meets Taya (SIENNA MILLER) in a bar, sweeps her off her feet, and ends up deployed on their wedding day.

Serving alongside the likes of fellow SEAL Marc Lee (LUKE GRIMES), Chris is a sniper who works to protect those on the ground in Iraq. He soon becomes quite proficient at killing those who want to kill American soldiers, eventually becoming something of a legend among his fellow men.

On the other side, former Syrian Olympic sharpshooter Mustafa (SAMMY SHEIK) is racking up the kills as well, and Chris makes it his mission to eventually kill that man when he gets the chance. But as he continues his sniper spree through multiple tours in Iraq, Chris doesn't initially realize what such combat is doing to his psyche, and the effects that's having on his marriage to Taya, especially now that they're parents of two young kids.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
War and combat are nasty but sometimes necessary things. But considering how many battles have taken place throughout history, it's both surprising and sad that it wasn't really until the last 40 years or so that people considered and truly came to understand the psychological impact such violence and death had on the participants. Nowadays, most everyone is familiar with the term PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, and there are far more options for today's returning veterans than there were decades ago. But that doesn't mean it's any easier on those dealing with such effects.

And that comes in all sorts of varieties stemming from the different sorts of combat one might have seen. There are those directly in the trenches, so to speak, who witness such horrors front and center. Others inflict death and damage from great distances, be that from bombs fired or dropped or in its newest form, using drones that take away another level of direct contact.

Then there are the snipers who are somewhere in the middle. They can obviously see their targets, but rarely do they see those shooters. And from what I've heard about such military personnel, it's a position that sometimes gives fellow soldiers pause, even if said shooters kept them out of harm's way, at least to some degree.

The tale of America's most efficient and proficient sniper, Chris Kyle, now comes to the big screen and explores such thematic material in "American Sniper." Adapted by Jason Hall from the book of the same name by Kyle, Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice, the film is a gripping action/drama offering filled with intense battle sequences, some slightly on-the-nose bits of dialogue about the effects of warfare on those serving, and what I'd deem slightly cautious but certain honorable patriotism.

There's been talk of recent about the veracity of some of Kyle's claims in the book (the most egregious apparently not making it into the film) and thus doubts and questions about the truth of other parts have arisen regarding both the book and resultant film. As has been argued before, movies aren't history lessons and some (and occasionally) a lot of artistic license is used to dramatize reality. Therefore, this critical assessment will only look at the film's artistic merits in its creative vacuum.

Much like Angelina Jolie did in "Unbroken," director Clint Eastwood begins with an intense scene -- Kyle (an absolutely terrific Bradley Cooper) having to decide whether to shoot a woman and boy who may or may not be terrorist insurgents -- and then interrupts them with flashbacks showing how the protagonist got to that point. Here, that's a father-son hunting sequence followed by the father informing young Kyle and his younger brother that there are three types of people in the world, sheep, wolves and sheepdogs.

With the subsequent bombings of U.S. embassies in 1998, we've learned Kyle is one of the latter and he goes through the rigors of Navy SEAL training to get there. Along the way, he meets his future wife (Sienna Miller) and then gets his marching orders, so to speak, during his wedding reception. We then return to the opening sequence and the sniper makes his fateful decisions, quickly realizing that didn't play out exactly as he imagined it would.

Nonetheless, and due to his certainty that he's doing the right and only thing, he continues and soon becomes a legend due to his prowess behind the sniper rifle and scope. Along the way, he ends up with a rival of sorts in a former Syrian Olympic sharpshooter (Sammy Sheik) who serves as his counterpart on the insurgent side. And as all of that unfolds, his relationship with his wife back home (who he sees between his four tours in Iraq) becomes increasingly strained as his psyche becomes progressively fragile and his ability to cope with ordinary life back home unravels.

None of that's anything new to the world of cinema, but Eastwood keeps the tension ratcheted up high and Cooper delivers what's arguably his best performance to date (which includes bulking up with a reported additional forty pounds of muscle and mass for the part). While some of the singular lines about the effects of war on veterans are a bit too obvious and slightly clunky, they're certainly not anywhere enough to derail this tale.

Mixing a certain rah-rah American patriotism into a cautionary story about the horrors of war and its after-effects on those in it, Eastwood delivers a strong and personalized film that should play well to both war pic fans and those who'd like to see more support of veterans. "American Sniper" rates as a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed December 5, 2014 / Posted January 16, 2015

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