ADVANCE MOVIE REVIEW: American Sniper

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"AMERICAN SNIPER"-- 5 STARS

What makes the great Clint Eastwood special as a director is his unique ability to always combine grit and heart together in passionate and challenging films.  Throughout his vast resume as a director, you will see striking examples of his ability to balance those two opposites.  The pugilistic power of "Million Dollar Baby" is balanced by heartbreaking loss.  His classic westerns, from "High Plains Drifter" to "Unforgiven," balance raw violence with mythology and strong personal redemption themes.  "Gran Torino" takes a incorrigible main character and reveals a moral center that changes your respect level.  This list goes on and on.  Eastwood rarely takes the easy way out to hone away uncomfortable flaws and deliver weak cookie cutter films for the general population. His films frequently dive deep into emotion and power with their balance of grit and heart.

Go right now to YouTube and play the trailer for "American Sniper."  First and foremost, THAT'S how you do a trailer.  That's how you tease a film, still name drop who you need to, and set the stage without giving a shred of your film away.  Second, after watching it, tell me you were surprised to see a name like Clint Eastwood's attached to a film with that kind of setting and tension.  You wouldn't be alone.  In many ways, "American Sniper" is new territory for Clint Eastwood while still retaining his signature hallmark of grit and heart.

That intense trailer scene is exactly the opening scene of "American Sniper."  Academy Award nominee Bradley Cooper plays Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in American military history.  It's his first mission out during his first tour in Iraq after joining the U.S. Navy after 9/11.  He's staring down his sights at a woman and a child carrying a RPG towards a U.S. military convoy.  Chris has the make the call.  He's in a position to both take lives and save lives.  Which does he choose?  What happens next is only the beginning of the heavy moral dilemmas and situations placed before this man over years of fighting the War on Terror.  

Eastwood quickly takes you back to introduce Chris Kyle as a rugged Texas cowboy and the son of deacon focused on the protection necessary to be a man.  He's already 30 and looking to make a name for himself riding bulls and broncos on the rodeo circuit.  Chris feels he can do better and enlists in the U.S. Navy's SEAL training.  Older than most of his fellow recruits, his country boy strength and steely resolve rockets him to the top of the class and sniper training.  He courts Taya (Sienna Miller), who quickly learns that Chris is not just another grunt looking for a lay.  She sees his chivalrous patriotism and reserved manner.  They soon marry, but not before Chris is sent to Iraq for his first tour of duty and another return to that opening scene.

Over the course of four tours of duty in the urban warfare theater of Iraq, Chris's legend grows.  His leadership, action, and presence saves lives and boosts the confidence and effort of others.  Dubbed as "The Devil of Ramadi" and identified by the tattoo on his arm, he earned as high as an $80,000 bounty on his head.  For Chris, it was part of the job.  The hardest aspect for him was going home to Taya and his children during the leaves he had.  The things he had seen and done weighed heavily and ate away at Chris's soul in a classic and well-composed example of post-traumatic stress disorder.  The film tackles all of those challenges, from combat to fatherhood, for Chris and shows Taya's perspective as the woman at home beautifully.

Circling back to the introduction, "American Sniper" is classic Eastwood with another marvelous powerful combination of grit and heart.  Steeped in timely history, the story of U.S. Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer Chris Kyle deserved big screen treatment and highlights both the real battlefield and the psychological one.  We've seen Eastwood tackle war films before with "The Flags of Our Fathers" and "Letters From Iwo Jima," but not like this.  The modern battlefield of the War on Terror is a daring new setting and technical challenge for the virile 84-year-old filmmaker.  Eastwood's longtime cinematographer and editor team of Tom Stern and Joel Cox combine handheld shooting and a sharp eye for pacing to deliver anything but a plodding slow effort that you might have expected from Eastwood.  This film is deftly adept at tackling this story and holds all sharpness possible.

Also, we've also seen Eastwood do biographies and true stories before like "The Changeling," "Bird," "J. Edgar," "Invictus," and "Jersey Boys," but not like this either.  In Kyle, he has the palette of an ordinary man, not a historical figure or celebrity.  With that mind, Eastwood changed his usual tone.  He scaled back the sentimentality, skipped his signature piano-based musical scores, and cut to the core of this man and his impact.  If you think the charasmatic and loudmouth Bradley Cooper is preening here for glamour, glory, and heroism in some exploitative war film for box office dollars, you would be wrong.  He dissolves into the role and all of its difficult strength.  See the film and then compare Cooper to the real Chris Kyle in interviews with Conan O'Brien or TIME Magazine and be amazed at both the actor's transformation and the plainness of a man who carries a unique legend.

Without question, "American Sniper" is new modern masterpiece for Clint Eastwood and one of the best films of 2014.  It belongs among the contenders for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor.  Eastwood succeeded in this new challenge to put his specialty of heart and grit towards a decidedly different landscape than his norm.  The film is simply outstanding and is greatly superior to last year's "Lone Survivor" from director Peter Berg.  That film carried a bit of a Hollywood injection of bravura and action to create its heroes.  That film needed its speechifying and slow-motion deaths set to soaring music.  What worked for that film isn't needed for "American Sniper."  Eastwood's film lets the simplicity of its own ordinary glory and poetic heroism do the talking, and rightfully so.

LESSON #1: WHY THESE MEN AND WOMEN FIGHT IN THE WARS THEY DO-- After talking about films that seek to grab glory and victory, that begs the question of why soldiers fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, even to this day.  The public and the politicians not on the battlefield have to have their reasons and issues to convince leaders and sell the cause to the public.  For the soldiers in uniform like Chris Kyle, their reasons were far simpler and far more selfless: to save the guys next to them.  The "boots on the ground" that get used as political chess pieces care more about the patriotism involved and the dedication of the group than the talking heads that think they are calling the shots.  They have the real resolve to see a mission through and value the freedom afforded to them at home.  Not all of us have that strength, resolve, and dedication.

LESSON #2: THE PILLARS OF GOD, COUNTRY, AND FAMILY-- Categorizing the reasons from Lesson #1 further and looking at just Kyle himself, these three ideals, in that order, are the driving morals for his life, service, and respect for freedom.  He knows and believes all too well that the only person he has to answer to for the deadly cost of his work is to God.  Furthermore, Chris believes in what America stands for and convinces himself that if the country can't be strong, then his family underneath and within that can't either.  Fighting for this cause is what earns him his family and freedom.  He seeks out the role of protector and it suits him.

LESSON #3: LIVING UP TO BEING A LEGEND-- Finally, there is a fascinating layer of character work here dealing with this lesson root.  The Iraqi bounty on his head is one thing, but the more difficult aspect for Chris to tackle is being able to measure up to his highly regarded reputation among his fellow soldiers, with all of the inherent authority, macho-ness, and toughness present in this culture.  His sense of duty put him in a position to be a leader among his peers as much as his reputation status did.  Chris took on every challenge, every mission, eschewed special treatment, and constantly proved his legend true.  That challenge became even greater when Chris was approached and seen as a hero and legend at home away from the war when he considered himself as normal and important as any man he served with. 

LESSON #4: THE POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER OF SOLDIERS AND VETERANS COMING HOME-- The final lesson to highlight is a powerful one.  As aforementioned, "American Sniper" takes the time to compose a solid example of post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans coming home from war.  On one level, Chris was called upon to be a killer and had to find the right mindset to accomplish that difficult duty in the name of serving his country and his cause.  Soldiers are put in that position all of the time and have to deal with those repercussions and consequences.  The internal scars are always harder to heal than the physical ones.  We witness that with Chris and his attitude on his own feelings and healing.  We see what it takes for him to live with himself, his wife, his children, and his fellow veterans.  That realization and healing process is tremendously difficult, even for a "living legend" that everyone looks to and depends on for strength.  That healing is greater than any victory in the trenches.

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