Bradley Cooper has established himself over the past few years as a competent and engaging dramatic actor with roles in “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle.” Before those films, he got away with banking on his natural charm and dry sense of humor.
If there were any doubts about his acting range, he’s finally found the role to establish him as an actor of merit with “American Sniper.” It’s a tour de force acting accomplishment.
What pushes Cooper to such heights is the role based on the true story of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL who became the deadliest sniper in American history. Through four tours of duty in the Middle East, Kyle earned the distinction of being the most wanted man in the American armed forces.
Cooper transforms himself into Kyle, from the confident gait when he walks to the uncomfortable reaction he has when his legend as a sniper grows.
There’s no scene-chewing bravado. Instead, Cooper finds subtle ways to share strong emotions. He starts with showing the emotional waves Kyle faced at home and at war within the suffocating emotional constrictions of a SEAL. Despite being subjected to the most evil aspects of war and trying to maintain his humanity with his wife and children, he only lets small doses of feelings roll out through his eyes.
Watching his volatile emotional state build is like watching a balloon being over-inflated. There’s no question that if some of the pressure isn’t relieved, the result will be disastrous.
As Cooper showed in “Playbook” and “Hustle,” this kind of soul-baring work can only be delivered with the help of a strong acting partner. He gets that support from Sienna Miller as Kyle’s wife, Taya. She’s the emotional valve that allows pressure to build and wane in a scene, which allows Cooper to focus on the power of such a controlled performance.
Their work is all that more impressive considering the film was directed by Clint Eastwood. His style of filming is to work very quickly, which often means actors have few chances to get a scene right. There are no moments in “American Sniper” where the intensity is hurt by an acting slip.
The only flaw is Jason Hall’s script, based on the book by Kyle. The film sets up an interesting relationship between Kyle and his brother (Keir O’Donnell) that fades away. This sibling situation would have added another strong thread.
It’s the only blemish in a production that shows Cooper has grown into one of the most dependable actors working today. It helps that he has been given a compelling war hero to play and works with an actress who turns in one of her best performances and a director who knows how to blend small elements into a major story.
As he did with “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima,” Eastwood has created a movie that has the kind of explosiveness and tension that makes military movies work while never forgetting the human story. These are blended together to create a film that isn’t merely a war movie — it’s a story of courage, conviction, camaraderie and caring.