The recent holy-shit freefall of Clint Eastwood’s filmmaking has been, to put it mildly, puzzling. A decade or so back, he could seemingly do no wrong; well into his 70s, he was turning out pictures with a frequency and quality that bested filmmakers half his age. Between 2003 and 2008, he directed six feature films — some great, all at least good. And then, in 2009, he went on an equally impressive run of dogs: Invictus, Hereafter, J. Edgar, Jersey Boys. By the conclusion of that grim roll call, it was looking like maybe it was time for Clint to hang it up; whatever directorial gift had guided him through four decades had clearly vaporized. So it’s a relief to report that his new film American Sniper is not only watchable, but quite good — the kind of lean, mean mediation on masculinity and duty that this particular filmmaker has always done so well.
It’s based on the memoir of Chris Kyle, “the deadliest sniper in US military history.” Eastwood wisely begins the film with, basically, the picture’s white-knuckle trailer — a high-tension scene of Kyle (Bradley Cooper, excellent) already in the thick of it, positioned on an Iraq rooftop with a woman and child in his scope sights. As he’s about to pull the trigger, we smash cut to Kyle as a kid, hunting with his dad, taking out a deer with quickness and ease. “You’ve got a gift,” his father tells him. “You’re gonna make a fine hunter some day.” Eastwood doesn’t dwell on Kyle’s roots in the small-town axis of hunting, church, and the flag, but he gets the point across; when Kyle sees news reports about the bombing of the American embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi and decides it’s time to serve, you buy it.
From there, Eastwood tells the story of Kyle’s multiple tours in the Middle East, where he racks up kills, sets his sites on Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and becomes the target of Zarqawi’s chief assassin. His exploits on the ground are intercut — and, perhaps, interrupted — by his simple life back home; he meets a sharp young woman (well played by Sienna Miller), marries her, starts a family. But he keeps going back, putting himself back in danger, over her increasingly stronger objections. “Do you want to die?” she asks. “Is that what it is?”
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.