Unusually for me, I saw a first-run movie tonight. It was, as you’ve already realized, American Sniper. Also unusually, the Century Cinema, which is Marin’s premiere movie theater, with a big screen and a George Lucas-installed sound system, had an almost completely packed house on the second weekend of a January movie. One expects packed houses for the first week or two of a Star Wars or Harry Potter franchise movie during the summer, but it just never happens for any other type of movie, especially in January. Never. And for the first time in my admittedly experience seeing a movie in Marin, about half the theater broke into applause when the movie ended. Marin’s conservatives are creeping out from undercover to see this one.
Not being a professional movie reviewer, I’m not quite sure where to begin with this one. You already know the story: Texas good ol’ boy Chris Kyle leaves the rodeo circuit, joins the Navy, becomes a SEAL, and heads off to Iraq, where he becomes a legend as the most successful sniper in American military history. After four tours of duty, he returns home and begins helping vets who suffered physical or emotional injuries during the war (or, of course, both). One of those vets, a Marine, murders both him and a neighbor, Chad Littlefield. Throughout it all, Kyle and his wife love and fight and love some more, and have two children who make both of them proud. It’s a simple story, really.
When Chris Kyle died, America mourned. His funeral cortege and memorial service drew thousands of people, although his former Commander-in-Chief (and still current Commander-in-Chief of the American military) was never heard to mention Kyle’s name. I guess Kyle just didn’t look enough like the son Obama never had — although it seems that Hugo Chavez, Whitney Houston, Robin Williams, Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown did look like that son, at least if one is to judge by the encomiums Obama poured upon them and the representatives he sent to the hoodlums’, er sons’ funerals.
Unlike me, Clint Eastwood’s film is carefully apolitical. It keeps a very tight focus on one man and the people around him. Just as they were in Kyle’s autobiography, his family by blood and marriage vie for first place in his heart with his SEAL family. Kyle is enormously patriotic. He’s repulsed by the sadism and immorality he sees amongst the Iraqis he fights. He lives to protect his fellow servicemen. And he has troubles transitioning rapidly between war in Iraq and peace at home.
In this regard — the profound disconnect between wartime on Monday and peace on Tuesday — Kyle’s situation reminded me strongly of British WWI fighters who also made almost painfully rapid transitions between home and war. Just as Kyle talks on the phone with his wife while sniping on a rooftop, British troops sometimes received by the afternoon post the mail their loved ones had sent that morning. (For other interesting similarities and differences between the British experience in WWI and the American experience in Iraq, I recommend this book.
To the extent I notice a director’s touch, Eastwood’s was deft and sure. Those two simple words count as high praise from me. I usually notice the director’s role in a movie when I hate the movie because of the director’s bizarre, irritating, or offensive decisions. Eastwood makes none of those mistakes. His style is smooth, professional and, when it comes to the fighting scenes, incredibly dynamic, while still being coherent enough to keep the audience engaged.
What really makes the movie, though, is Bradley Cooper’s incredible acting. “Acting” actually seems like the wrong word. Cooper doesn’t “act” Chris Kyle; he “is” Chris Kyle. Admittedly, I’ve never met Chris Kyle, so I’m taking a leap of faith by saying what I did. What I really mean is that Cooper inhabits his character’s skin so seamlessly that there is never, ever a sense that Cooper is acting at all. This is a fully realized character. One has no sense of the actor named Bradley Cooper positioning himself on the set and then, when he hears the word “action!” going through the motions of the character named Chris Kyle. There is no actor named Bradley Cooper. There is just Chris Kyle.
One of the things that makes it clear just how extraordinarily Cooper fills the role is to watch the other actors. They’re all good . . . but you can see them acting. I have a vague memory of having seen Cooper in some other roles and not noticing him. He apparently was waiting for this role.
All in all, American Sniper is a movie that deserves its accolades and blockbuster revenue. Chris Kyle was one of those great, salt-if-the-earth Americans who emerges in times of war — not a man who loves killing for killing’s sake, which would make him no better than the enemy, but a true sheepdog who is willing to get dirty in the fight to protect his flock. Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, and the rest of the American Sniper paid Kyle his due by creating this great movie.