By Ed Symkus
More Content Now

Clint Eastwood starred in a lot of Westerns before he started directing and sometimes starring in them. He did both in “High Plains Drifter” (1973) and again in “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976) and “Pale Rider” (1985), before catching audiences and critics off guard with the multiple-Oscar-winning “Unforgiven” (1992).

He doesn’t appear in his newest Western, “American Sniper,” but it’s the best direction and compact, fast-moving storytelling he’s done in years. OK, “Sniper” isn’t really a Western, but it sure plays out like one. It’s a war movie, taking place in recent years in Iraq. Put in the simplest of terms, it’s about a good guy sharpshooter and a bad guy sharpshooter, and it all leads up to a sort of showdown between them. The good guy, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is a Navy SEAL, assigned to “over watch” duty, setting up on rooftops in Fallujah, protecting Marines in the streets below by “banging on the long gun,” taking out weapons-brandishing enemies below. He’s very good at what he does. The bad guy is a nameless al Qaida soldier, hiding out in the shadows, behind a long gun of his own – the equivalent in sniper skills of Kyle, but picking off Americans.

Based on Kyle’s 2012 autobiography, “American Sniper” isn’t the gung-ho, rah-rah pro-American film that people – who haven’t yet seen it – have been accusing it of being. It shows, in no uncertain terms, that war is hell, but aside from a couple of vicious characters – one bad guy is nicknamed The Butcher for all the right reasons – it doesn’t take sides, isn’t even political. It’s a character study of what war can do to a person, to a family. Kyle is presented as a conflicted man who others, against his will, are making into a hero, and it’s about the tremendous costs that come with that title.

Eastwood opens the film with a brief scene of heart-pounding intensity. Kyle is on a roof, eye on his scope, watching an American convoy that’s entering the town. He sees a young Arab woman and her son approach the convoy. Are they just innocent locals? Is she concealing a weapon? Should he pull the trigger? He doesn’t know what to do. Eastwood adds to the tension by practically eliminating any sound from the mix, making the silence almost deafening.

But Eastwood cuts to a lengthy, almost 20-minute flashback that shows what brought Kyle to this point, beginning with him as a kid, learning tough life lessons from his dad, cutting to Kyle and his younger brother on the Texas rodeo circuit, seeing him watch a terrorist attack on TV that pushes him to enlist in the military for SEAL training at age 30, meeting the lovely Taya (Sienna Miller) at a bar, watching TV with her as the World Trade Center towers fall, marrying her, then shipping off to the fight.

Suddenly we’re back on that rooftop, during the first of what will be his four tours in Iraq, seeing what Kyle is seeing though his scope, unsure if he should pull the trigger. Even with all of the stuff going on in that busy flashback, this is where the films really begins, and it never releases you from its grip.

The tension is nonstop, and there’s plenty of action complementing it, with Kyle moving from rooftop to rooftop, staring through that scope, taking out the enemy one at a time. Not randomly, but shooting at enemy soldiers that are trying to kill Marines.

Kyle finishes one tour of duty and goes home. But he’s a changed man. He’s nervous, jumpy, even frightened of something as simple as the sound of a lawnmower starting up. The film also provides a stage for Bradley Cooper to give a superb, very inside performance as a man who doesn’t even know that he’s become damaged, even though his wife tells him there’s something wrong.

And all of that is after just the first of his four tours. The story turns into a hunt for The Butcher, and eventually focuses on the Iraqi sniper who’s going after the Marines and after Kyle. While keeping with the theme of the futility of war, the film is packed with amazingly edited gunfights, soldiers stuck in situations with impossible odds against them, and even nature rising up in revolt, when a gigantic sandstorm overwhelms the screen.

As anyone who read the book or newspaper accounts knows, Chris Kyle made it home, and even attained a degree of normalcy with his family. Yet there’s no happy ending here because, as history has shown and this particular story shows, there are many different ways for war to be hell.

Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.

AMERICAN SNIPER
Written by Jason Hall; directed by Clint Eastwood
With Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller
Rated R