“American Sniper,” Reviewed: Arms and the Men.

This article originally appeared in the January 23, 2015 Daily Messenger.

Bradley Cooper in "American Sniper." (Warner Bros.)

Bradley Cooper in “American Sniper.” (Warner Bros.)

Despite its 137-minute running time, there’s not an ounce of fat on Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (rated R for violence and language). Like the subject of this biopic, U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, its size is all muscle – and if it isn’t always nimble, the film knows where it’s headed and stays on course with grim, single-minded purpose.

The topic of American Sniper – an exploration of the life and career of the man recognized as the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history – earned it some publicity as it was gradually rolled out to theaters in late 2014. But it became a legitimate phenomenon in the new year, earning six Oscar nominations the day before it entered wide national release; that, combined with its subject matter, helped it set box-office records in its opening weekend.

It took me a few days to see Sniper (sold-out theaters will do that), and in that time I heard it called both anti-war and a patriotic celebration of an American hero. I’d say it functions as a mirror held up to each audience member’s soul: Its sincere, authentic depiction of Kyle’s experiences during four tours of duty in Iraq – and his intermittent, not always satisfying time stateside with his wife and family – will reinforce your ideas about war and its effects on our military men and women.

Based largely on Kyle’s 2012 autobiography, Sniper moves quickly through his childhood in Texas, his early days as a ranch hand and rodeo rider, and his urge to enlist after hearing about a 1998 terror attack on the U.S. embassy in Tanzania. The bulk of the film is spent in country, where his innate sharpshooter skills helped Kyle rack up an unprecedented record of 160 certified kills and likely many more unofficial ones.

Bradley Cooper added serious bulk to his normally lean frame to play Kyle, and along the way tapped into reservoirs previously unseen from this actor: It’s a revelatory turn similar to that of Steve Carell in Foxcatcher, in which a liked and respected performer suddenly shows us an utterly unfamiliar dimension of talent and nuance. Cooper is remarkable in showing us both Kyle’s unblinking stoicism in his work and his confused unpreparedness for the PTSD that awaited him upon returning home.

Like some of Eastwood’s best work – Unforgiven (1992) comes to mind – American Sniper is deeply moving, inscrutable and sympathetic. It offers a critique of the embrace of violence that’s unique to our culture while simultaneously making a case for the appeal of that mindset. Most of all, it’s a stark, sad reminder that the lives claimed in war aren’t all recorded on the battlefield. For Chris Kyle and many others, the war follows them home.