American Sniper: Compelling Cooper performance stuns audiences

By now, if you haven’t seen or heard about Clint Eastwood’s epic war drama “American Sniper,” odds are good that the cell phone reception on that deserted island you’ve been living on is spotty at best.

The drama kicked off its national release with six Academy Award nominations — including Best Picture and Best Actor for Bradley Cooper — and completely dominated the cinematic landscape.

The film made $90.2 million, becoming the largest January weekend release in history and besting the $68.5 million pulled in by “Avatar” in a single weekend per “Variety.”

It isn’t an accident either.

Whether out of a sense of patriotism or Oscar buzz or a love for war films, Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper or any combination of reasons, everyone knows someone who’s seen “American Sniper” at least once, if not many more times.

What a great thing for cinema that thought is.

Put all the politics aside. Cast away the agendas on either side of the aisle and what the film is or isn’t saying and whose side “American Sniper” supports on any number of hot-button issues.

“American Sniper” is an important film within the current cinematic climate because of what the film truly is, an intimate character study of a Texas man. Certainly the context of “American Sniper” is modern warfare, but the film — and especially Cooper’s stunning performance as Navy SEAL Chris Kyle — is much more than a simple story of battles home and abroad.

Try watching interviews of Chris Kyle promoting his 2012 autobiography, on which “American Sniper” is based, and then see if you can figure out where Kyle stops and Cooper begins in the mesmerizing cinematic portrayal.

Criticizing the film for its subject matter is criticizing Chris Kyle the man as no actor in several decades has done as complete a job becoming the person they are portraying on screen as Cooper does mirroring Kyle step for step, word for word, nuance for nuance.

The rare leading man who views himself as more a character actor, opting for substance over style, Cooper’s portrayal transcends the film itself — a remarkable performance from a remarkable actor and one that will define the rest of his long career.

Sienna Miller does an admirable job facing the daunting task of counterbalancing Cooper’s performance while simultaneously honoring Chris’ wife Taya, who served as a technical advisor on the film. It’s a thankless role that could have been the film’s downfall, but Miller’s performance is steady enough to carry the film forward when needed.

The biggest flaw in “American Sniper,” which is minor enough in larger context, but noticeable enough to be distracting, is the use of clearly fake, plastic dolls serving as placeholders for real infants during dramatic home scenes between Kyle and his wife.

It’s baffling that something so trivial and unrealistic would be used and the fake baby’s appearance is so jarring that it can knock viewers completely out of their cinematic experience.

Obviously, this error can definitely explain Eastwood’s absence from Best Director accolades, but fortunately, “American Sniper” is so brilliant in the other 131 minutes that it’s just as easy to fall right back into when the film moves on.

What Eastwood gets right in his direction is a delicate balance of an intensely accurate depiction of modern warfare offset with hard-hitting drama, the best of a newer brand of “action-drama” cinema.

In stark contrast, Michael Mann’s dark and brooding cyber-thriller “Blackhat,” starring Chris Hemsworth as a veteran hacker helping the CIA prevent terrorism, is exactly what Hollywood wrongly assumes complex action-dramas are supposed to be.

Released last weekend, the film is clunky, overly technical and difficult to follow, definitely not the sort of film Hemsworth fans thought they were getting upon seeing the trailer.

It’s difficult to believe that “American Sniper” viewers ended up watching the film they believed they were going to after watching its trailer, but not in the same way.

Eastwood’s film provides so much more depth of character thanks to a complex, yet compelling performance from Cooper.

Worth every penny of the five, six or seven times it needs to be seen in theaters, “American Sniper” is an instant cinematic classic and among the best films of the 21st century.

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