American Sniper | Movie+TV Reviews | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Published January 14, 2015 at 10:01 a.m.

'Tis the season for critics to pick apart award contenders "based on a true story" and point out places where their creators bent the truth or left it out altogether. You've read the rumblings, for example, about how The Imitation Game gave short shrift to Alan Turing's tragic last years, and witnessed the huffing and puffing in high places about whether LBJ was portrayed with historical accuracy in Selma.

Clint Eastwood's American Sniper — the 34th film he's directed — is going into wide release just this weekend, so you probably haven't read rumblings of that sort about it. But you will. It's based on the 2012 memoir by Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL who served four tours in Iraq between 2003 and 2009, racked up 160 confirmed kills, and earned the title of most lethal sniper in U.S. military history.

Bradley Cooper grew a beard and packed on 30 pounds to play the Texan. All but unrecognizable, the actor extends his streak as the Last Member of the Wedding Crashers Cast Anyone Would've Expected to Achieve Awesomeness But Did and Then Some. He gives a quietly powerful performance that I'm shocked to see hasn't registered on the award-season radar.

Except for Kyle's mostly brief, fidgety stateside interludes in the company of his increasingly concerned bride (Sienna Miller), the story unfolds in Fallujah and Ramadi. There Kyle becomes known as "the Legend" for his ability to give fellow soldiers cover from a rooftop.

To say the movie works as a companion piece to 2008's The Hurt Locker is an understatement. American Sniper bristles with the same electricity and is set in similar locations. Both films are told from the vantage point of a specialist who finds himself in a place where he doesn't belong — yet feels, more than at any other time in his life, that he's precisely where he belongs.

Eastwood stages the scenes of confrontation masterfully. War movies told from the viewpoint of a sniper are rare, and the director, now 84, takes full advantage of the unique perspective. On one level — as in the opening scene, in which a mother and child are tracked by Kyle's crosshairs — this is a white-knuckle, edge-of-your-seat action film. On a second, more contemplative level, it's an exceptionally perceptive character study.

Unlike The Hurt Locker's Sgt. William James, Kyle doesn't keep coming back because of an addiction to the rush of war. His problem is that he goes into withdrawal the minute his rifle and scope are taken away, because he feels the power to keep his brothers safe has disappeared with them. When he was a boy, his father told him that there are three kinds of people — sheep, wolves and sheep dogs — and that he was born to be the third.

That obligation haunts Kyle from his return home until the day fate does him a favor by leading him to a veterans' hospital. When he realizes that such places are filled with broken brothers who also need his help, he finds a new mission.

So, about the rumblings coming soon: You'll be hearing that Kyle's insurgent counterpart, a Syrian-born sharpshooter called Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), was invented by screenwriter Jason Hall. That Kyle didn't really enlist after watching the Towers fall on 9/11, as the film suggests. And that his book contains batshit fabrications about being hired by Blackwater to snipe at looters after Katrina, getting into a bar fight with Jesse Ventura and other nonsense.

The important thing is what you won't hear — namely, a single word suggesting that Chris Kyle was anything less than an American hero.