‘American Sniper’ Review: A target only Clint Eastwood could hit

It’s been a few days and I’ve let American Sniper wash over me slowly. If I had written this review the day I watched the movie it would have likely have been one continuous glowing epitaph. It will go down as one of my finest moments in a darkened theater. I simply loved the movie. The acting by Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller were particularly good as the leads of the real life Chris and Taya Kyle—as the rest of the cast was just fabulous. It was very easy to forget that the characters on the screen were actually in a movie. It was also easy to forget that the director Clint Eastwood shot most of the picture around California—given that most of the move took place in sets dressed up to look like Iraq. American Sniper takes you away into a bold story of masculinity, love, drama, and geopolitical circumstances on a scale that seemed as simple as a jazz piece, yet as infinitely complex at every level as the most involved, and beloved classic novel. It is truly a wonder of filmmaking exposition.

As much as I love Steven Spielberg as a director and still consider his Schindler’s List to be the pinnacle achievement in film—I think American Sniper just surpassed it as for very complex subject matter conveyed through raw brutality, hope, and cleaver strong characters toward a resolution not so cleanly wrapped up by the climax. During development for American Sniper Spielberg became hung up on the story inflating the script to over 160 pages. Due to budget constraints at Warner Brothers, Spielberg had to bow out with his hands up in frustration when the studio wouldn’t budge. Warner Brother knowing they had a big problem called up old reliable—Clint Eastwood—the ultimate minimalist director at the top of his game and asked him to take the helm—which he did. The result is likely the best movie in Clint Eastwood’s career—which has spanned over five decades now.

On August 5, 2013, Spielberg dropped out of directing the picture. By August 21, 2013 Eastwood signed on. Upon arriving at the script by Jason Hall, Eastwood immediately went into action. By March 14, 2014, Sienna Miller joined the cast. Principal photography began on March 31, 2014 in Los Angeles. In just six short months Eastwood had delivered a movie ready for production and whipped through the shooting schedule quickly so that by June the company was doing its pickup shots. The film was ready to present to the AFI Fest on November 11, 2014 just six months later. Eastwood had masterfully taken control of a very complex subject matter complete with grieving families, a high-profile lawsuit by Jesse Ventura, a murder trial, and a Hollywood community split in half politically by the subject matter to fly through the production in a way that lesser directors would have been terrified of—to deliver a sheer masterpiece to the movie screen. The only real knock to the movie is that the babies in the film looked like dolls, instead of real infants. Considering the liability of using real babies on a set—I can’t blame Eastwood for the decision. Other than that—the movie was stellar in every way.

I remember when Chris Kyle was murdered and was very aware of the book American Sniper because of the Ventura lawsuit. I had respected Jesse Ventura until I saw what he was doing to the widow Taya and I had my doubts about who said what against who during a bar fight between Kyle and Ventura. So I was turned off to the book waiting to see the evidence as time passed. When Ventura was awarded over a million dollars against the Chris Kyle estate my heart dropped because I wanted to believe that the person Glenn Beck spoke so highly of was everything he said he was. America needed a hero, and it looked like Kyle was just another inflated, propped up celebrity backed by cardboard supports. But, I trust Clint Eastwood. I know how he works. I knew how the Warner Brothers deal evolved—I knew how Eastwood came on board while reading American Sniper so I figured if there was a fraud in the story, Eastwood would sniff it out. So I watched carefully all of Eastwood’s interviews as he did promotional work for Jersey Boys over the summer of 2014 and was intrigued by his beard growth and even in how his stature had changed a bit to reflect the actor I had come to know two decades before. The American Sniper project was having a wonderful effect on Clint Eastwood. Here’s what I think happened.

In October 2013 Dina Eastwood filed for divorce which finally was granted on December 24th 2014 ending 18 years of marriage. Eastwood did what most men do under those types of emotional escapades, he turned to masculine camaraderie to heal any misgivings he might have had at the time and buried himself into his work. Much like the subject matter in his films, Heartbreak Ridge, Kelly’s Heroes and even Where Eagles Dare, Eastwood found the subject matter of American Sniper soothing—and redeeming. His wife had run off with another man—an old high school buddy. Eastwood handled the situation calmly and in a manner very similar to how Chris Kyle dealt with his cheating girlfriend at the beginning of American Sniper.   There was a subtle pain to the scene that was classic Clint Eastwood—and something only he is able to put on-screen.

Throughout the rest of American Sniper there were many similar scenes where the relationship between Taya and her husband Chris were strained. One scene was before the birth of their first son. Chris feeling like he should have been in Iraq shooting bad guys wondered why he was going to the shopping mall with his wife. The moment was broke up by the sudden birth of their son. It was a scene filled with pain, hope, and an earnest attempt to capture the essence of living daily life and all the obligations that tug on our souls. It was again only a scene that Clint Eastwood could have directed in an obvious male bonding experience he was having with Bradley Cooper who was a co-producer on the movie. American Sniper was more than a movie for all the people involved, Eastwood, the real wife Taya, Bradley Cooper–a role of a lifetime for him—and even the memory of Chris Kyle. They were all using the movie to heal themselves and thus their product is healing a nation who is watching this movie and instantly connecting to it.

There is a scene in Magnum Force where Clint Eastwood is on the shooting range for a competitive duel with his police force rival when his buddy “fatso” tells him he’s “never been smoother.” Eastwood’s Dirty Harry character in the movie was dealing with some really intense emotions about friendship, betrayal, trust in law enforcement and an egotistical boss seeded with corruption. Under hard emotional circumstances, Dirty Harry hit the shooting range like a well oiled machine. Eastwood understands that kind of thing and has put it in many of his movies. But in American Sniper his mastery of that well oiled machine has never been more evident.

Steven Spielberg would not have been able to make American Sniper. It would have been good, and likely would have come out like Munich. It would have been a decent movie, but not great. American Sniper took a person like Clint Eastwood to guide the complicated subject matter through a mine field off and on the screen to deliver a product to Warner Brothers quickly, cheaply, and efficiently.   American Sniper from the onset was a real life expert shot that only a few people in the world could make leading to an ending that was much more metaphorical than it otherwise would have been.

Eastwood rarely uses slow motion in his movies. Yet when the shot was taken at the end of the film from Chris Kyle toward his ultimate rival—Eastwood slowed the bullet down so everyone could see it flying across the Fallujah cityscape. It was a shot that meant more than just a flying projectile intended for an assassin’s head. It was the story of American Sniper itself and in the end the bullet hit its target and a nation could finally breathe a sigh of relief. It’s not too much to say that American Sniper is the result of a long career by Clint Eastwood who was born to make this movie and perhaps this movie only. Eastwood had made a lot of great films—but American Sniper is the result of a new gear that no modern director possesses—and only he could wield. Warner Brothers is lucky Steven Spielberg backed off the project. They made the movie for a fraction of the budget but more importantly, it will go down as one of the best movies to come out of their studio in their long and storied history.

Long after the Academy Awards ceremony in the spring of 2015 takes place American Sniper will be a favorite movie—particularly among men. It speaks to a man’s warrior bound heart honestly. Over Christmas I was speaking to my father-in-law who had been hiding in his basement at his personal movie theater watching Mark Walberg’s movie Shooter—which is a story about a sniper who has to fight for his own survival against forces that have turned on him. He was down there as the rest of the family socialized for Christmas. But for him, the movie spoke to him much more powerfully than all the good tidings of joy centering on Holiday festivities. Shooter is a good movie particularly for gun enthusiasts—and he loves it. There is an honesty to it that cuts through all the B.S. normally associated with disjointed groups of people from all different backgrounds trying to mesh themselves into a cohesive family unit for the sake of photographs and memory. In the future, American Sniper will be the pinnacle achievement of such movies and will be many people’s favorite to view when they want to touch the face of America and the heart of a real warrior. For my father-in-law, it will be the movie he tucks away into his private theater to watch so to see the purity of what America was always intended to be. He’ll forget about Shooter. We’re not talking about a slack-jawed hippie when we talk about my father-in-law, but a former school teacher and multi-degreed academic who has late in life become quite a gun enthusiast.

American Sniper is a must see movie. Once it is seen, it will quickly become many people’s favorite war movie. It took the heroics of Chris Kyle to get it started followed closely by his tenacious wife. Then it was Bradley Cooper who produced it, gained all the weight to look like Chris and to get so close to the project that he knew the character inside and out and back again. But ultimately it took a heavy-hearted Clint Eastwood who took 84 years of life experience and a recent divorce to make a movie about men and the hard decisions they often have to make when life presses down hard. And in the end when regrets are demanded, they are refused the way testicular fortitude expects—with firmness that punches through death itself to the heart of honor we all crave to carry. American Sniper is more than a movie. It’s a philosophy that is uniquely American and it is one that will make future Fourth of Julys much more reminiscent of what the Founding Father’s always intended—and give reverence to the wonderful freedoms provided by the Second Amendment.

Rich Hoffman

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