American Sniper: Cooper comes of age

Bradley Cooper first broke out in The Hangover in 2009, followed by The A-Team a year later. So he’s into comedy, nothing heavy. Fair enough, he’s that kind of actor. Or so it would seem. Then, in 2012, he hit us with a double whammy, The Place Beyond the Pines and Silver Linings Playbook. Both fascinating, flawed and complex characters. And both critically acclaimed (and very human) dramas.

Two years after that he returned to comedy with another pair of hits, American Hustle and Guardians of the Galaxy, perhaps proving that, if he is going to do comedy it’s going to be worthy films, one where his character plays a pivotal – or at least vital and significant – part.

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So at this point he’s worked with David O. Russell (twice), and up-and-coming directors Derek Cianfrance and James Gunn. And in the process he’s been nominated for two Academy Awards. Not bad at all. But now, with American Sniper, it was time to step it up. With Clint Eastwood directing there was every chance he’d gain critical acclaim for his performance again (which he did, which another Oscar nomination).

Here he plays Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, with the film’s story based on Kyle’s book American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History. With 255 kills (160 officially confirmed ones) Kyle was the deadliest marksmen in U.S. military history (as you can tell from the book’s title).

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From his beginnings as a Texas rodeo rider, he’s sparked into life by 9/11 and the terror attack on the World Trade Centres and signs up to do his part. At this time he meets Taya (Sienna Miller) in a bar, the pair quickly marry up before Kyle heads off to war. Eastwood gives us just enough scenes to believe Chris and Taya’s bond and chemistry, because after that he’s off on the first of four tours hunting down bad guys.

Each of his excursions to face the enemy are up there with the most tense ones you’d care to name in The Hurt Locker. However, in contrast to Jeremy Renner’s tightly wound, volatile and abrasive IED disposal expert, Cooper’s marksman Kyle is calmness personified. Whether under fire or faced with a morally tricky situation, he reacts in a measured and calculated way. You’d expect nothing less from a sniper, but Cooper’s portrayal is understated and quite masterful. One you could watch time and again and see new things in the most nuanced of facial expressions. In general he gives little away, so you have to stay on a swivel to spot key tells.

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Eastwood has to take some of the credit. And it’s not a stretch to imagine that working with this legend of cinema has helped Cooper really up his game. Beneath the surface his Kyle is much more than just a Texan-boy-turned-soldier, he cares deeply about his fellow man, particularly his team, and he’s compassionate and considered yet implacable, guarded and resolute in his resolve to take the fight to the enemy. In short, he’s one driven sonnuva bitch.

And, like you’d expect, upon returning home from each tour, he’s removed from real life, disconnected to a degree, which doesn’t play well with his long suffering wife. Sienna Miller does admirably in a part which largely has her distraught on the phone as Kyle engages in yet another firefight without managing to end the call. And when he’s back on US soil she fares even less well, faced with a zombie of a husband who’s emotionally distant and simply cannot adjust to civilian life.

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As a real life – and really very quite recent – tale, it’s a worthy one. It needed to be told. And Eastwood, Cooper and Miller give it warmth, humanity and believability. It’s tense where it should be tense and emotional where you’re expecting it to be. Yet it lacks something. Maybe spectacle… maybe it just needs to give us something we haven’t seen before. Maybe Kyle as a character is a little difficult for us to connect to. It’s hard to say for sure what the issue is.

That’s not to say it’s a bad film by any means. It’s good, great even… but maybe – with the many, many war films out there – great just isn’t enough to put it in the modern classics category. Compare it to say Zero Dark Thirty (another worthy tale which needed telling) and you’ll see what I mean. So, mixed feelings really. A good effort, but must try a little harder to reach cinematic greatness.

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