The Scope of War

I’ve been to hundreds of movies over the years, but I’ve never experienced anything remotely like the solemnity that settled over the audience at the end of Clint Eastwood’s latest film, American Sniper. Absolute quiet. Not a person rose to leave. It wasn’t until the real-life footage of the memorial motorcade for murdered Navy SEAL Chris Kyle bled into a stream of rolling credits that the souls in that movieplex rose, still in silence, and filed out like a funeral procession.

At 84, Eastwood as a filmmaker has achieved the hard, flinty grace of a haiku master. On the surface, his movies are visions of brutal economy, wrapping us up in the swift dynamo of expert storytelling; below that, they are all tangle and howl. Since The Unforgiven (1992), Eastwood has been returning, over and over again, to the subject of violence — a subject he seems at once to celebrate and complicate by a kind of cinematic jujitsu, in which he turns aggression back upon itself until its wages are fully felt.

In American Sniper, Eastwood has found a subject that perfectly suits his considerable talents. Based on Kyle’s autobiography of the same name, the film tells the story of the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history, a man who found his calling, as well as his damnation, in four tours of duty in Iraq before returning home to attain some semblance of normality, however brief. Eastwood tells Kyle’s story with a precision that belies the emotional carnage increasingly taking place in the soul of this killer, played with furious restraint by Bradley Cooper.

Cooper’s Kyle is a simple, decent man — God, country and family is his mantra — who, pulled into service by a sense of duty, quickly becomes legendary among his peers for his preternatural ability as a sniper. The performance is tight, bristling, aggrieved; Cooper portrays a soldier suffering a personal form of mission creep, as his certainty degenerates into a manic attempt to keep faith in what he does so well. As his wife Tanya (Sienna Miller) implores him to come home and stay home, Cooper’s bright blue eyes glaze over, telegraphing a world of repressed grief. It is all he can do to maintain.

Eastwood’s tone throughout this film is blunt yet elegiac. American Sniper is no more a pro-war movie than Million Dollar Baby is a pro-euthanasia movie. The silence that reigned at the end of the screening felt to me like shock. With consummate craft, Eastwood inverts the form itself, creating a captivating war movie while calmly infecting you with a virus of moral ambiguity and ambivalence.

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