God, I kind of dread this, which is maybe why I saw this film in January but never got around to reviewing it (as I just realized). I mean, I talked about it a lot back when everyone else was talking about it and it’s a film that got people talking a lot. I’m not going to discredit the other side of the argument; I saw some intelligent people I respect a lot arguing the other side, but let’s just get it out of the way. I think this is a really good movie. Yes, it has some troubling elements. The worst is that Eastwood’s heart clearly isn’t really in the PTSD element and I thought those scenes, which should have been the most powerful in the film, often felt weak – I’ve dealt with rage issues in my life and it’s more destructive than portrayed here. Then there’s the climax, which is so hamstrung dramatically that it’s not even worthy of the word climax. And then the actual ending is ridiculously lionizing of Kyle to a degree that is genuinely troubling. Things like the fake baby and the horrible CGI kill-shot are nitpicks in some ways, but I also feel like they’re indicative of the sloppy way Eastwood handles things he doesn’t really care about, like the fake baby scene, which is an emotional scene that really needed some work.
But the film has a lot of good stuff. When Eastwood is engaged, he’s really engaged, which means that the stuff in Iraq is pretty well solid gold. The rooftop fight/sandstorm battle is a bang-up action scene that has real intensity & suspense. And I don’t have an issue with the Chris Kyle character as he’s portrayed here because I don’t think that the film necessarily agrees with Kyle. Yes, Kyle spouts an often troubling, morally unambiguous, jingoistic rhetoric a lot, but from all accounts this is who Chris Kyle was and I don’t think films should shy away from depicting people like this. I think the ultimate point of the script is that war messes people up badly and, this is key, this is true even for people like Kyle who see their crusade as a holy one. Sure, the pacifist is going to get ****** in the head, but so too, this movie argues, will the career soldier who thinks he’s doing God’s work. This message gets muddled by Eastwood’s failure to really land the PTSD scenes, admittedly, but I feel that the film isn’t interested in agreeing with Kyle, just portraying him. And I think Cooper’s performance really elevates the film, at least a full star all by itself; it’s a minimal, very interior performance, but a really, really good one. He’s often brilliant at portraying the emotional lockdown Kyle attempts to operate under. A scene where he meets another soldier at a car repair garage is sparsely written but Cooper imbues it with a sense of a deeply disturbed, haunted man. And I’d point to the scene after his friend’s funeral as some of his best work. That’s also a great scene where I think it’s abundantly clear that the film is not with Kyle as he spews vitriolic rhetoric about how his friend died because he had the temerity to doubt the war. That’s a scene where it’s clear the rhetoric is intended to be a symptom of his mental and emotional problems.
Anyway, long review, but even a few months after the debate has died down, I think the film requires a little parsing. All things considered, it’s a seriously flawed movie and, even as I think my reading of the film is the correct one, I do understand the reason the film is so divisive and how its flaws have opened it to another reading. Still, recommended. 3 ½ stars.
tl;dr – divisive film is seriously flawed and often troubling, but Cooper’s brilliant performance and a script that’s more ambiguous than it at first appears elevate the film substantially. 3 ½ stars.