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Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper on target in ‘American Sniper’

Chris Kyle doesn’t deserve a movie. He deserves a monument.

Heck, the Chris Kyle on display in “American Sniper” ought to be on currency. Alexander Hamilton’s been hogging the $10 bill for decades, and what’s he done for us lately?

In the hands of director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall (“Paranoia”), Kyle is a less complex character than the one presented in his controversial best-selling autobiography on which the movie is based.

This Kyle is a proud Texas patriot who likes to fight and is unwavering in his belief that there is nothing more righteous than defending America. He’s the walking, talking embodiment of that Lee Greenwood song.

He doesn’t revel in the taking of lives, but he doesn’t shy away from it, either. It’s simply what he does, and he does it well. So well, in fact, that by the end of his fourth and final tour of duty in Iraq, Kyle’s 160 confirmed kills earned him recognition as the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history.

Kyle, devastatingly brought to life by best-actor Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper, was taught by his father (Ben Reed) at an early age about the need to protect others — to be the sheepdog standing between the sheep and the wolves. Some people, he’s told, are “blessed with the gift of aggression.”

Years later, as a rodeo cowboy with a “Don’t mess with Texas” bumper sticker plastered on his fridge, Kyle watches news reports of the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and channels that gift of aggression by enlisting for SEAL training.

Shortly thereafter, he makes the second biggest decision of his young life by chatting up a young bar patron named Taya (Sienna Miller), sharing a few drinks, then holding her hair while she pukes.

“American Sniper” takes a few detours. At times, it’s a traditional war movie. For a while, it feels like a Western, with Kyle pitted against a rival sniper (Sammy Sheik) who tracks him through a network of informants and the Iraqi equivalent of corner boys. But for the most part, it’s the story of Kyle’s struggles to balance his two families — the growing one he creates with Taya and the band of brothers he watches over from above the streets of Iraq — and the toll that ultimately takes on him.

Those worlds occasionally collide. One minute, he’s talking to Taya on his satellite phone and learning the baby she’s carrying is a boy. The next, his convoy is attacked, and she can only listen in horror as a firefight erupts all around his dropped phone.

Kyle eventually drifts further and further away from her. He abandons the relative safety of his post to join the Marines in the deadly task of clearing structures in the search for insurgency leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Nicknamed “The Legend,” he becomes so famous, his tattoo shows up on wanted posters throughout Iraq offering a $180,000 bounty on his head.

Even when he’s home, though, he’s distant. For the life of her, Taya can’t understand why he keeps returning to the front lines. “I’m making memories by myself,” she complains. But duty calls, and Kyle is not about to let it go to voice mail.

Hall’s script is clunky in places and conventional in others. Several scenes depicting the battle-scarred hero feel overly familiar. And Eastwood’s greatness works against him here. “American Sniper” is never less than compelling, but his past successes set an unusually high bar. The result would have felt more impressive had it been directed by, say, Shlint Sheastwood.

As Taya, Miller pulls off her second dramatic transformation of awards season. As with her role as wrestler David Schultz’s wife in “Foxcatcher,” I had no idea she was even in the movie until the credits rolled.

But that’s nothing compared to the metamorphosis of Cooper, who adopts a mud-thick West Texas drawl and disappears behind a beard, an array of sweat-stained baseball caps and an extra 40 pounds of muscle.

Cooper is astonishingly good in the best work of his film career. There’s nothing showy about his performance, no big freakout a la his Oscar-nominated work in “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle.” When a young Marine (Jonathan Groff) recognizes Kyle between tours and thanks him for pulling him from a battle in Fallujah and saving his life, Kyle’s response, a muted series of “Mmm hmms” and “OKs,” is a powerful glimpse into his discomfort.

Also telling, the night Kyle meets Taya, she dismisses him as a typical self-centered SEAL.

“Why would you say I’m self-centered?” he responds, genuinely shocked by the appraisal. “I’d lay down my life for this country.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s the greatest country on Earth, and I’d do everything I can to protect it.”

In Kyle’s earnestly hushed mumble, the words don’t sound corny. They may just make you want to wave a flag.

Surprisingly for a best-picture nominee, “American Sniper” doesn’t always work. At times it’s formulaic. And it either polishes, or completely ignores, some of the rougher edges Kyle exposed in his memoir.

But Cooper, much like Kyle, is always right on target.

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567.

 

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