Scope of Eastwood's 'Sniper' fuzzy beyond action, Cooper's performance

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By Brad McHargue, Film Critic

Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” has been mired in controversy on two different fronts. One involves Eastwood’s use of not one but two obviously fake babies in a handful of scenes, neither of which lend credence to Eastwood’s status as an allegedly good director.

The other involves the supposedly whitewashed history of Chris Kyle, the United States’ most successful sniper. Depending on your stance and level of objectivity, the former is less an issue than the latter, though both provide an understandable level of objection to those seeking truth in their cinema.

The film follows Kyle (Bradley Cooper), a good ol’ Texas boy with a love for bronco ridin’ and hunting. Yearning for more, he signs up for the military and quickly makes a name for himself in Iraq as one of the most-lethal snipers in American history.

While much of the film is devoted to Kyle’s various roles in the war, including seeking out and killing a rival Iraqi sniper responsible for the death of a good friend, the rest is mired in Eastwood’s attempt to showcase Kyle’s struggle to readapt to civilian life. His wife Taya (Sienna Miller), whom he met while in basic training, repeatedly asks him to stay, but Kyle, a self-identified patriot fighting for God and country, keeps returning to do his perceived duty.

This is the line that Eastwood tries to tread as we bounce back and forth between Kyle’s tours of duty and his time at home recuperating. The former is mostly exciting fare, with the war-hardened Kyle, time after time, lending his special skill in multiple missions. He even is in on the hunt for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and “the Butcher,” his second-in-command whose primary instrument of torture is a power drill, utilized in graphic detail on a child in one particularly tense scene.

Eastwood employs a variety of tactics to showcase the battle, from ground-level assaults littered with bloody violence to aerial drone shots and birds-eye views seen by those back at the base. At times it has a video game feel, such as a slo-motion shot of Kyle firing a bullet from over a mile away, the camera following its lethal trajectory. Although legitimately engaging and bubbling over with tension, the rest of the film is sadly dragged down whenever Kyle returns home.

It’s in these moments do we see the toll the war has on Kyle, both in terms of his mental status and relationship with his wife. Unfortunately, these scenes are not handled with care, the aforementioned fake baby serving as an appropriate metaphor for the seemingly forced manner in which these scenes are supposed to remind us of combat’s effect on soldiers as they return home. They become increasingly repetitive, their saving grace being Cooper’s remarkably reserved and stoic performance. Bulking up for the role and speaking with a southern drawl through a pronounced lower jaw, he’s a shining star in an inky black void of one-dimensional characters, bringing a sense of humanity to a man whose reputation has received some damning criticism in the wake of the film’s release.

In these moments, Eastwood sought to paint a portrait of a soldier burdened by his role as an elite killer, but given the stodgy manner in which he handles these moments, “American Sniper” feels less like a cohesive film and more a series of vignettes. Its tenuous throughline, and dare I say the main point Eastwood seeks to make, serves to break up the action but is too stuck in abruptness and ham-handed attempts to allow for any real emotional impact.

In the end you’re left wanting more than a simple portrait of a soldier, as Kyle is anything but a simple man. His alleged past and Cooper’s performance notwithstanding, Eastwood’s Kyle is a three-dimensional character in a one-dimensional film.

“American Sniper” is rated R. Running time: Two hours, 12 minutes. Two and a half stars out of five.