Oscar voters gave Bradley Cooper his third nomination for “American Sniper” Thursday, but were probably hard put to explain exactly why.
He has no long monologues, no overtly emotional moments, no breakout scenes of the kinds you can excerpt for clips on awards shows. But by the end, the bulked-up actor has fully inhabited the title character, a Navy SEAL who acquires the nickname “Legend” for his extraordinary success over four trips to Iraq.
We understand Chris Kyle’s unshakable patriotism, his love for both the buddies he protects on patrols and the wife back home (Sienna Miller), who feels him slipping farther away with each tour of duty. When he’s in action, we grasp his cool, intuitive intelligence. When he’s back home, we sense his fear that post-traumatic stress disorder might trigger destructive behavior. Cooper gives a subtly complex performance as this relatively simple man.
Jason Hall (“Paranoia”) adapted Kyle’s autobiography. While nothing in the narrative breaks entirely new ground, the accumulated details make their impact. That’s true of the whole film: At 84, Clint Eastwood has directed one of his most understated, fast-paced pictures.
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He moves us quickly through the buildup: Kyle’s first boyhood hunting trip with his dad, a paternal lecture that divides the world into sheep, wolves and protective sheepdogs – Kyle’s family being the latter, of course – and a stint as a second-rate rodeo competitor. Kyle finds his purpose by enlisting, marries his soul mate and flies to Fallujah three days later, not long after the World Trade Center attack.
He immediately confronts a dilemma: He’s on a rooftop protecting Marines when a woman and child walk into the street below. She gives the boy something that looks like a mortar, and he approaches the soldiers. If Kyle has misread the situation and shoots the boy, his career is over. If he hesitates, and the boy delivers a fatal payload ....
The rest of the film shows how Kyle made choices like that over and over. And though it doesn’t go deeply into the psychological scars such a job must leave, we can guess at the turmoil behind his seemingly calm eyes. The story eventually becomes a duel between Kyle and an invented character, a Syrian sniper named Mustafa who won a gold medal for shooting at the Olympics. But we know that, whether or not Kyle wins the duel, he won’t be completely at peace when he touches down again at a U.S. airport.
As usual, Eastwood works with cinematographer Tom Stern and editors Joel Cox and Gary Roach. They, too, go in new directions: Stern shoots a terrifying battle in a sandstorm, while Cox and Roach work in short, tense scenes in Iraq and long, more reflective takes on the home front. Eastwood gives each setting its own right rhythm and never dwells too long on an emotional moment.
The acting has a similar balance. Luke Grimes plays a dedicated soldier who questions the need for the invasion; he and Miller counter Kyle’s dedication with the suggestion that loss of American lives may not be worth the gain of a stable Iraq. They’re not depicted as cowards or fools, just people with reservations. Eastwood has directed five war movies and acted in others, and he knows there’s no single truth to convey about combat.