It seems irresponsible to review American Sniper without doing so through the lens of the enormous cultural conversation surrounding it, but having actually seen the damn movie, it strikes me as rather bizarre that so many tens of thousands of words have already been spent discussing it without most of them being, y'know, accurate. Given the parameters of The Dialogue around the movie being so divorced from what seems to me to be its reality, I don't even know how to engage with that dialogue. So sadly, I'm just going to have to treat this like a movie that happened to come out, that I happened to see, and we'll all have to pretend that it hasn't already been buried under a mountain of essays from all corners of the political spectrum.

So, American Sniper: Clint Eastwood's most thought-through, well-mounted, and thematically snug movie since Letters from Iwo Jima, centered on what is far and away the most subtle, insightful, and nuanced performance that Bradley Cooper has ever given. Indeed, I can't think of an Eastwood film since The Bridges of Madison County which so successfully foregrounds an actor and banks everything else on that actor's performance doing work that would be impossible if the film tried to approach it any other way. For American Sniper is, first and above all, about a man who wants to turn himself into a machine; a man born into a value system in a nation at a time where his sense of right demands that he give up a certain measure of his humanity for The Greater Good, and it resides entirely upon Cooper's performance to communicate what that entails. That, and one scene where Jason Hall's screenplay drops a broad-ass line to the effect of "aren't you even human any more?" into the mouth of the main character's wife, but by Eastwood movie standards, that's almost inscrutably subtle.

The film is adapted from the memoirs of Chris Kyle, self-aggrandising "most lethal sniper in U.S. military history", though the filmmakers are content to reconfigure him as necessary to make the movie they want to. It's impossible to fathom Cooper's version of Kyle bragging in print about slugging Jesse Ventura, or whatever the hell it was; when he's praised as "the Legend", or reminded of his career kill count, he adopts a pleasant but blank expression that communicates "that's so nice of you and can we maybe talk about anything else?" with the silent pleading of a man who's much better at avoiding talking about things than acknowledging them. It's the cousin to the expression he wears when his Stateside wife, Taya (Sienna Miller) talks about how much she and their kids just love it when he's home; the facial vocabulary of a man who doesn't like feeling emotions and thinking about himself, and found that transforming himself into a military killing machine facilitated that non-feeling. The real-life Kyle has, in other words, been retrofitted into a perfect Eastwood protagonist, the clearest of all descendants from Will Munny in the director's 1992 Western Unforgiven. He even delivers the Munny-esque line "It's a heckuva thing to stop a beating heart" when taking his son out deer hunting, late in the film, delivered without Munny's world-weary fatigue. For that would require introspection, and introspection is something Kyle is thoroughly incapable of performing.

American Sniper illustrates Kyle's mind by fully settling into his warrior POV (which doesn't require or imply that it adopts his opinions as its own, but I've resigned myself to waiting until 2025 or so to start that fight), which to begin with, results in a pretty ingenious structure for a pretty conventional biopic. The opening 20 or 25 minutes start with the future deadliest of all possible snipers about to pull the trigger on his first human victim and then flashing back to race through a potted history of his life prior to the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks, glancing at the Big Obvious Signpost moments like it can't wait to get back to Fallujah, Iraq. It then spends time meandering through his four separate tours in-country, with Eastwood's characteristic bleached-out cinematography, courtesy of his regular DP Tom Stern, serving as it customarily does to strip all of the sentiment out of a scenario that barely had any to begin with. When Kyle goes home, he spends just enough time with his wife for her to just barely make an impression on us (I have never, ever had much use for Miller before, but the particular impact she makes is so profound with so little screentime that I'm not likely to doubt her again in the near future), and he's always back for another tour without a scene depicting his decision or his attempt to sell Taya on its merits. In short, the story won't engage with interpersonal conflict, it blasts through all of the explanatory history that might give us some insight into the protagonist, and it ignores everything in its haste to get back to war. And that is what I mean by settling into Kyle's POV.

The filmmaking reinforces this: the excellent sound mix especially, with its layers upon layers of explosions and gunshots at multiple distances from multiple directions. But the editing by Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach (also Eastwood regulars) is equally on-point, charging ahead during the overt action scenes and giving the more languid chatting non-combat scenes an erratic vigor, a constant sense that even if we're relaxed now, we're still in the middle of a fucking war zone. And then there's the more direct matter of how the film frankly depicts the messy suddenness of human death by bullets, small geysers of crimson that pop out of human bodies, Iraqi and American alike, with unromantic proficiency, leaving nothing to the imagination. It does not, by any measure I'm able to recognise, suggest that being in war is exciting - unlike the very similar The Hurt Locker, nothing in American Sniper suggests that Kyle is an adrenaline junkie or flirts with a death wish - and the increasingly washed-out expressions on Cooper's face, coupled with the unyielding desaturation of the images, clearly indicate that it's taking a lot out of Kyle to be in that environment.

The question the movie focuses on, then, is why he's there, and why he keeps going back; why, after having killed a child right off the bat, he'd keep placing himself in a position where his only task is to keep killing and killing. The best scene in the film shows Kyle training his scope on a little boy wandering around an RPG launcher, quietly begging him not to pick up the weapon: not wanting to shoot another child, feeling visibly sick at the thought of killing another child, and yet it plainly does not occur to him as an option not to kill the child if it comes down to it. Why does Kyle do this, the film silently asks, and then it even more silently answers: because he doesn't have the imagination to conceive of anything outside of the moral code he has always lived by, even when it causes him anguish, even when his wife - importantly, the only other human in the film given even the vaguest semblance of an inner life - tells him straight to his face that his beliefs are wrong and causing pain, even when his great "I shall be a hero and slay the dragon" moment is reckless and ends up putting the exact same American soldiers he was "heroically" saving into more active danger than if he'd just sat there and done nothing at all. He wanted to turn himself into a machine, and he succeeded in doing so, and the movie stares at him without judgment or praise as he goes about that process. And when his refusal to look inside himself means that he can neither acknowledge privately nor even consider as a possibility the reality that the actions he has committed and the actions he has witnessed have caused him to suffer from PTSD, the movie stars non-judgmentally at that, too. But the longer it goes on, the more it trusts us to see that disorder peering out from behind Cooper's increasingly flat eyes, and understand that his desire to avoid human feeling is increasingly a desire to avoid naming his own suffering and thus his own perceived weakness.

All of which makes it epically frustrating when the movie ends by descending into a maudlin, arch-biopic sequence of leading up to Kyle's death while back home in Texas, playing as a straightfaced version of the same "life is happening!" montage that's used to such mercilessly ironic effect in the film's opening, and ending on the corniest "he's off to meet his death!" scene since the penultimate scene in 2012's Lincoln. And having thus pointlessly fucked his own movie, Eastwood doubles-down with a travesty of a montage of images from the real-life Kyle's funeral and memorial services, a sequence that's exploitative to begin with, and also moonily plays up the notion that this was an unambiguously wonderful man whose passing is much to be mourned, which is found nowhere else in the movie, and indeed is almost exactly contradicted by its persuasive argument that this was a prickly man whose refusal to look inside himself caused only suffering in himself and others. It's a different, vastly worse movie - the movie, in fact, that American Sniper has been accused of being (by liberals) and praised for being (by conservatives), but that it emphatically isn't for some 127 of its 132 minutes. But oh me, oh my, how shittily pandering those five minutes are.

Meanwhile, is it racist? Not really, but it doesn't do a very good job of inoculating itself against that charge - there's one scene in particular, involving a made-up insurgent assassin with a penchant for drills, that doesn't do serve any meaningful narrative purpose and provides almost the entire basis for the argument that the film as a whole presents the Iraqi people as bloodthirsty brutes; and even that isn't quite a slam dunk 1+1=2 piece of evidence, given context. Mostly, though, American Sniper simply doesn't care very much one way or another about the people of Iraq; an apparently damning statement, until we mention as well that it doesn't care one way or another about any American, citizen or soldier, whose surname isn't "Kyle". This is a character study, not a political statement, and the only real sin it commits is presenting that study in a framework that is entirely impossible to strip of politics, and could only be perceived otherwise by somebody with a reflextive America-centric worldview. A sin that somehow didn't taint the equally apolitical Hurt Locker>, despite that film actually coming out when the Iraq War was still officially ongoing.

That being said, it's a marvelous, marvelous character study, driven by a superb central performance and unpolished, spare filmmaking and writing that allow that performance to be the motive force of everything else the film does and is. Some of what it is, is ambivalent to the point of being problematic; a tiny bit of what it is, is acutely vile; and most of what it is, is a smart, complex portrait of a largely fictional man who desperately wanted not to be complex at all. What the film's reception reveals about American culture is uniformly discouraging and depressing, but as a two-and-a-quarter-hour piece of cinema made by an inconsistently great director who got his mojo back in a huge way after too many years of burnished mediocrity, I come about thiiiis close to loving American Sniper, and even with its ugly-ass flaws, I wouldn't trade it away for anything.