After the disinterested and flat direction of “Jersey Boys”, Eastwood seems to have regained some of his mojo with this film which despite a few flaws emerges as a faithful and respectful adaptation of Chris Kyle’s 2012 autobiography. Structured into four chapters to parallel Kyle’s four tours of duty in Iraq, the film makes occasional forays into his home life in between tours and early on provides an extended flashback covering his formative years but its real focus is his military service.
The action and combat scenes as we accompany Kyle and his fellow soldiers at the bleeding edge of the war on terror are handsomely recreated and presented without a score, giving them a veneer of documentary realism. Despite the accuracy with which they’re realised and the lack of movie making manipulation, they feel somehow superficial and lack a real sense of risk or peril. This is partially because the film quickly establishes Kyle’s almost super-human talents with a sniper rifle but also because all the excellent practical work is undone by some conspicuously poor special effects, such as digital bullet holes and blood spatter which would shame a game although the worst effects are the appalling mixture of CGI and prop dolls used to portray Kyle’s children as babies.
A noticeably beefed-up Bradley Cooper certainly does the humble, earnest soldier justice and his portrayal is uncannily close when compared to the genuine archive footage included at the end of the movie. Sienna Miller does some of her best (and nearly unrecognisable) work as Kyle’s wife Taya, although she’s very much relegated to the background as the restaging of the military operations take centre stage.
Both Eastwood and Cooper clearly have a great deal of respect and reverence for their subject which unfortunately means the film ends up feeling distinctly cautious about potentially causing any offence. There’s precious little commentary or opinion on the merits of the invasion of Iraq and although it was an important part of his post-military life, the film is careful to avoid direct commentary on the treatment and care of veterans following major conflicts.
The reverential tone ultimately renders the film bland, with little true insight into Kyle himself and virtually no character development for anyone else, much less the enemy who are one dimensional cyphers. There’s more poignancy and emotional heft in the brief coda of real life footage and archive photos detailing the tragic and bitterly ironic circumstances of Kyle’s death than in the two hours which precede them and while this is a fine movie which honours its subject, it’s hard to shake the feeling there could have been a sharper, more powerful film here to both glorify and scrutinise the remarkable individual and the events he was part of.