To the picture’s credit, Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall both ask the question and know that it’s too complicated to answer. Though the climax indulges in flashes of rah-rah simplicity, and its supervillain is a bit overcooked, American Sniper has a psychological complexity that transcends typical “war movie” tropes; it’s never as simple as being just a “hero” or “patriot.” You can’t kill as many people as Kyle does and come out clean, no matter how noble and just you may perceive your cause to be. There are things you just can’t un-see (the film only includes a couple of them, and that’s enough).
By understanding of the endless shades of gray inherent to these issues, Eastwood recalls not the Regan-era simplicity of his earlier war pictures like Heartbreak Ridge, but his 2006 WWII double-header Flags of Our Fathers and Letter from Iwo Jima. And that little roll call also hints at why American Sniper is such a welcome return to form for Eastwood — because he’s in comfortable territory, making a thoughtful yet viscerally effective war movie, rather than trying (and failing) to stretch with historical biopics and jukebox musicals and whatever the fuck Hereafter was.
The desire to try new things is understandable and even admirable — it’s interesting when, say, Scorsese makes a Dalai Lama movie, or Wes Craven does an inspirational teacher drama. But hopefully, with Eastwood, that period is over. American Sniper is a powerful and intelligent war movie without an ounce of fat on it, and let’s not overstate how many filmmakers are actually capable of that. Now, what’s it gonna take to talk Eastwood into doing another Western?
American Sniper is out Christmas Day.