'Lone Gunman'

In 'American Sniper,' Bradley Cooper plays 'a barrel of movie tropes'
ONE-DIMENSIONAL: Aphorisms pass for profundity, women are marginalized and the tough-guy American is always right in Clint Eastwood's latest film.

Texan Chris Kyle, who cultivated the nickname "The Legend" during his tenure in the armed forces, was a Navy SEAL sniper with a reported 150 kills during his four tours of duty.

In American Sniper, Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is envisioned by director Clint Eastwood as a barrel of movie tropes: cowboy, rodeo rider, lone gunman, a gruff soldier uncomfortable with the womenfolk and the settled world. 0 has been called a neo-western, but is that fair? When was the last western they made where the Indians were all bad Apaches?

Kyle is seen as a modest, uncomplicated country boy who took the advice of his father (Ben Reed) to heart: "There are three kinds of people in the world, wolves, sheep and sheepdogs"—this Pink Floyd-level reductionism passes for profundity. After some youthful aimlessness, Kyle joins the SEALS, and the mandatory boot camp scenes unfold. What we see is a less-accurate carryover from the procedural hazing in the Navy SEALS feature-length informercial Act of Valor.

American Sniper scoots along mechanically; maybe there's some life in one sequence of a duel on a roof, with Kyle rolling around just out of leash range from a chained up vicious dog. Kyle's tours of duty are four-fold, but we don't get the sense of stages of the war, of time passing, in the way you can by reading George Packer's The Assassin's Gate. Kyle goes back and forth between Stateside and this undifferentiated Hajiland in which he hunts men. He only shoots people who deserve it—they're all caught red-handed. Out there in the battered Iraqi cities are cartoonish, ominous villains, such as "The Butcher" ("The son of Shaitan!" exclaims a man on the street) who carries out power drill torture on children.

Cooper does a lot of exercising, in SEAL training camp and later. But the real stretches come in every scene, as Cooper strains to fill the part. The actor is beefed up and bearded out, and keeps gazing off camera like Chuck Norris in his ruminative moments. There may have been little for Cooper to grasp in actor-turned-writer Jason Hall's script, taken from the memoir Kyle wrote with the help of two ghost writers. Kyle saw himself as a Christian soldier, carrying a Bible and a tattooed cross into the fray. Recall George W. Bush himself had to apologize for referring to the War on Terror as a "crusade," but it hardly matters: Kyle really came to brandish the skull, not the gospel. (Kyle's squad symbol was the death's head logo of the Marvel Comics vigilante The Punisher.)

If we owe it to our country to watch this tragically simpleminded war movie, Sienna Miller deserves the Congressional Medal of Honor for the lines she's forced to utter. Miller is an offbeat actress—she looks strong-willed, and she's dark and spiky. She's there to be the sniper's conscience, but her insights into Kyle's character evolve from snap-judgment to absolute whine. Taya keeps phoning in her loneliness (always calling when Kyle is in mid-fire fight—women!). In every sequence between tours of duties, Taya plays the left-behind mother—cutting off Kyle's yearning to help the buddies he left behind. "This isn't about them! It's about us!" At last, the primordial movie-wife threat: "I don't think we'll be here when you get back." Eventually, Taya gets put in her place, in a variation of the Robert Redford/Katharine Ross play-rape scene that was disquieting in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid 40 years ago.

American Sniper tries for Kurosawan tragedy, as in a shot of a dead enemy sniper under a pennant of windblown flapping tarp. Eastwood doesn't notice the unintentional horror comedy in the way the TV newscaster describes the embassy bombings that caused Kyle to sign up: "Clearly, a part of someone's war against usÉit's still uncertain at this hour who our enemy is." Apparently, it still is uncertain. If it's true that useful patriotic lies make the nation stronger, Kyle's father is sadly right, and America really is full of sheep. Despite the varied opinions on the war, it ought to be understood that American Sniper beats stiff competition to become the most bullshit biopic of the year.

American Sniper

R; 132 Min.

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