The 15:17 To Paris (Clint Eastwood, US, 2018)

The bond of friendship between three Californian kids – Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler – helps them overcome the perils and pitfalls of school life. As young adults trying to figure out what to do with themselves Spencer feels driven to help others so he and Alex enlist in the military but both find it tougher than they imagined. Reuniting with Anthony for a European vacation the three visit Italy, Venice and Germany but a last minute decision to get on the train to Paris brings them face to face with a heavily armed Isis terrorist and changes their lives forever.

Somewhat unexpectedly, Clint Eastwood has turned into America’s pre-eminent cinematic chronicler of true life stories. Beginning with his Charlie Parker biopic Bird (1988) through his Iwo Jima diptych of Flags Of Our Fathers (2006) and Letters From Iwo Jima (2006), then Changeling (2008), Invictus (2009), J Edgar (2011), Jersey Boys (2014), American Sniper (2014) and Sully (2016) his films have been distinguished by an emphasis on blue collar/outsider protagonists, adventurous variations on traditional cinematic techniques and a determinedly humanist focus. The 15:17 To Paris takes all of these qualities and pushes them to what seems like a natural endpoint given the director’s fondness for ringing the changes while working in genre. The true life story of how three young Americans on a European vacation confronted and prevented a massacre made headlines around the world in 2015. Eastwood’s movie uses a Hollywood thriller kind of a structure in which the story of these men’s lives is punctuated with scary flashforwards to the attack. This editing strategy from Eastwood’s new regular editor Blu Murray supplies the film with the narrative momentum it needs but within that structure Eastwood is boldly artistic – actually downright radical – in a manner one might have expected from a formalist like Steven Soderburg or some other, much younger filmmaker. The first part of the movie in which we meet out heroes as kids – annoying the teachers and bonding with each other during detention – is the most conventional with the kids played by a trio of engaging child actors. But once the film jumps to the boys as college graduates there’s a thrill in knowing we’re no longer watching actors portraying fictional characters but the real heroes re-enacting events from their own lives.

All the guys are competent on screen but Spencer Stone – on whom the movie concentrates most – is a natural performer. His desire to help people by joining the military results in a run of disasters that are partly bad luck and partly his own fault and Stone socks all this over in an underplayed and sympathetic manner that seems to be building to something momentous. But once the trio depart for a European vacation Eastwood audaciously dispenses with the narrative momentum he’s built up and the film takes on the feel of some breezy French indie completely unconcerned with plot. Eastwood’s camera follows the lads around as they explore Venice, make friends with a pretty American girl, visit Rome, taste the ice cream and see the Colosseum, before heading off to Germany and getting royally smashed in a Berlin nightclub. Very little happens – at least in conventional narrative terms – but the jaunty, affectionate tone has the feel of Eastwood (who achieved international stardom in Italian westerns) reliving – through these kids – his own experiences. However, once our heroes board the train to Paris the film turns again and becomes an archetypal Hollywood thriller with a visceral, nail-biting recreation of the terrorist attack. In the film’s final segment, in which the trio are awarded medals by the French President, the men collide head on with archive news footage of themselves from the same ceremony. This combination of styles lends the film a strange and fascinating quality because with biopics we’re all familiar with actors starring as real life heroes, or (occasionally) real life heroes starring as themselves. But the two forms are usually kept separate. It’s either one or the other. But this one combines both and the result is one of the most formally audacious and original of recent Hollywood movies.

It works in emotional terms too. Eastwood’s principal interest here isn’t the attack but on the values Spencer, Alek and Anthony learnt over their young lives and which held them in such good stead when confronted with a life or death crisis. What are these values? Nothing more or less than those of middle America. All are patriotic kids, raised at a Christian school yet constantly in trouble with the authorities (something Eastwood shows to highly amusing effect) and who out of the classroom love nothing more than studying battle plans from WW2 and playing games of war in the woods.  And, man, did I get a kick out of the scene where Spencer invites Anthony home to show him his toy gun collection. “M-16, AK, Paintball gun, coupla pistols..!” he says before pulling out an Arnie sized hunting rifle! This is a world you don’t often see from contemporary Hollywood and Eastwood treats it without condescension or mockery. When a teacher at the Christian school the lads are enrolled in demands of Spencer and Alek’s mothers that their kids be doped and begins to quote statistics warning they’ll end up as drug addicts anyway Spencer’s mother bracingly declares, “My God is bigger than your statistics!” The boys may have imbibed the tenets of Christianity but their teachers and administrators are a mostly cruel and callous bunch. Your heart really goes out to Alek’s Mom when the school principal calls her in and outrageously suggests the child might be better behaved if he was living with his father. The child actors are only onscreen for the first 20 minutes but they’re charismatic and convincing and their personalities are quickly established; Anthony emerges as the cheeky, cheery one, while Alek is loyal and friendly and Spencer’s the big kid who just wants to help.

Once we get to the lads as adults the three leads are a pleasant surprise for non-actors. For starters they’re all good looking guys which means they photograph well onscreen. Their natural personalities, the boyish charm of Anthony Sadler and the huge physical bulk of Alek Skarlatos which contrasts strikingly with the diffident – almost shy – demeanour of the man himself, plus the innate cameraderie between them, comes across nicely. As befits someone who charged 30 feet down a train carridge toward a terrorist pointing a loaded AK-47 at him Spencer Stone emerges as the major character here and he proves  compelling and charismatic. Spencer exudes that distinctively guileless quality one always associates with Americans and which non-Americans always love taking the piss out of. Yet there’s something admirable about a man who feels driven to protect others. A man of faith – the prayer of St.Francis which begins, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace” is touchingly delivered by Spencer at two critical points in the movie – struggling with the kind of obstacles in life we can all empathise with. One of the big misconceptions about Spencer and his friends is that they only performed those heroic actions on the train because they’d had elite military training. In other words, they weren’t really normal civilians. But as the film shows this wasn’t the case. Neither Spencer nor Alek were special forces trained or anything close to it. Alek ends up in Afghanistan as a glorified mall cop, loses his rucksack in an Afghan market and has to bribe a local to give it him back. Hardly Jason Bourne. And Spencer’s whole drive was to help people as a medic while the simple self-defence skills he picked up along the way are nothing more or less than what you’d find if you were to enrol in a self defence class down the local high street. It’s fascinating to watch Spencer’s seemingly disastrous career arc here as he flunks one class after another, to share his simmering anger and resentment at his own failings and then – as we reach the end of the film – to reflect and to marvel at how all those things in life that seemed so futile at the time turned out to be anything but.

That’s the genius of The 15:17 To Paris; the way it finds substance and meaning in the most mundane of lives. Even the European sequence makes the point that whatever you might feel about their God, Guns and Family upbringing these guys are not small minded. On the contrary, they exhibit an openess to strangers, an empathy for others – especially in a delightful encounter with an aging English hippie who extols the virtues of a trip to Amsterdam – that shows them open and engaged with life around them. It’s the final piece of the collective character portrait the director has been quietly constructing. All that’s needed now is to see that character tested and that’s exactly what we get once they board the train to Paris. The train attack is visceral and frightening. It’s a brilliantly staged and edited sequence that really captures the emotional intensity – the escalating, reverberating waves of shock, rage and fury – as Spencer, Alek and Anthony pile in to stop a would be killer who’s already mortally wounded one man as the passengers cower under their seats in sheer terror. Two more non-actors, Mark Moogalian and his wife Isabelle also play themselves here and they’re both very good. Best of all though is the way Eastwood brings meaning to the violence. Spencer’s ju-jitsu lessons and the sage advice of his old medical instructor about improvising in an emergency all come into play in ways both thrilling and startling but it’s the character of these men – which links directly back to their childhood – that one is most struck by and Eastwood finds a stirring image amidst the chaotic aftermath of a bloodied but unbowed Spencer sitting quietly on the station platform and a sense that he’s finally found the service to God of which he’s been seeking. A coda in which the French President awards the three men that country’s highest medal of honour utilises real life footage and plays as a sort of inversion of the one in American Sniper. It also quite rightly singles out the most important influence on the men’s lives – their parents and – especially – the mothers.

Clint’s The 15:17 To Paris

Clint’s latest film looks like an interesting project for a number of reasons. The 15:17 To Paris is a retelling of the 2015 Thalys attack in which an Isis terrorist boarded a high speed passenger train and began an armed assault on the passengers before three American tourists attacked and beat the shit out of him because they weren’t prepared to wait to be slaughtered. As is well known it stars the actual heroes of the incident, Spencer Stone, Alex Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler, a determinedly bold move for a studio picture. It’s obviously not unknown for real life celebrities to make cameo appearances in their stories (think of Ira Hayes, Rene Gagnon and John Bradley turning up for the flag-raising in Sands Of Iwo Jima (1949), or to take the starring role, as real life World War 2 hero Audie Murphy did in the screen version of his combat experience To Hell And Back (1955). But I think it just might be unprecedented to use three non-professional leads in the same film. Remarkably, it also appears that many of the passengers caught up in the events of that day are also playing themselves. There are professional actors in there too of course but it sounds like a pretty audacious stylistic choice on Eastwood’s part.

I’m also intrigued at the apparent emphasis on the trio’s formative experiences growing up together as childhood friends. Apparently none of them had the easiest of lives but the bonds they formed and the strength they took from that is what enabled them to act as they did when they faced a life or death choice on that train. That emphasis on relationships is a sign of how much Eastwood the artist has changed over the years. Back in the 70’s and 80’s the overriding impression (in spite of gems like 1980’s Bronco Billy) was of an Eastwood hero permanently estranged from other people, a figure perpetually on the fringe of society. It’s very noticeable how much that has changed over the last few decades and especially with the likes of Invictus, Hereafter and Gran Torino; dramas in which meaning and value is found in the protagonist’s desire to connect with others. How The 15:17 To Paris will dramatise that en route to its edge-of-your-seat climax is something I’m very much looking forward to.

Back when American Sniper came out, WB’s then marketing head Dan Fellman ascribed the mammoth box office success of Sniper to it being the first Superhero movie for adults. What he meant was that the character of sniper and family man Chris Kyle was a superhero to grown ups in much the same way Batman was to teenage males. Looked at in that context The 15:17 To Paris seems like a Superhero origin story as it (presumably) details just how these men gained the qualities that enabled them to act as they did and save hundreds of lives on board that train. The 15:17 To Paris opens February 9th. I can’t wait.

The Gauntlet (Clint Eastwood, US, 1977)

A terrifically enjoyable star/director vehicle for Eastwood boasting a winning combination of comedy, action and drama with two leads you get behind and want to see triumph. A booze soaked ‘nothing cop’ in Las Vegas, Ben Shockley (Eastwood), gets the job of delivering prostitute Augustina ‘Gus’ Mally (Sondra Locke) to her court appearance in Phoenix. According to Ben’s boss it’s ‘a nothing witness for a nothing trial.’ Unsurprisingly then, Mally turns out to have a story that can not only bring down Shockley’s boss, chief of police Blakelock (a brief but memorably repulsive character played by William Prince), but the assistant DA (Michael Cavanaugh) and various Mob types, if they can make it all the way from Vegas to Phoenix. However between them and the courthouse lie dozens of trigger happy cops, car bombs, the mob, a Hell’s Angel gang, helicopter assassins and the ‘gauntlet’ of the title – hundreds of armed to the teeth police officers lined up on the streets and buildings of downtown Phoenix just itching to take out Shockley and his witness. But Shockley has a plan – hijack a bus, armor plate it, then drive right up to the courthouse with his witness!

The Gauntlet is best remembered for its numerous action scenes which in 1977 were regarded as seriously over the top. However time has a way of putting things into perspective and just as the James Bond movies of the 1960’s established the template of big action movies for the next decade,
so The Gauntlet – with its blue collar hero, outrageous and gleefully exaggerated stunts and action taking place not in some Bondian fantasy land but in contemporary, everyday locations – now looks like a clear precursor of the Willis, Stallone and Schwarzenegger action movies of the 1980’s. That said, The Gauntlet has a lot more going for it than just its action. Eastwood, as is his way, delights in subverting his own image even as he gives his audience what they want. In this case the star clearly relishes his role as The World’s Thickest Cop, a law enforcement officer so dim that even after two near brushes with death – and the only link being that in both cases he called the same person at the police department immediately beforehand – still can’t put the pieces together without Locke’s help. Speaking of Locke it has to be said that her subsequent appearances in Eastwood movies did became somewhat wearisome for Eastwood fans (although she was never miscast in the way Jill Ireland was in all those Charles Bronson films) but rewatching The Gauntlet is a reminder that not only could Locke actually act but there was once a palpable screen chemistry between her and Eastwood. There’s a lovely scene late in the movie where the two of them are rolling into Phoenix in their armor plated bus and for a moment they simply fantasize about their future life together. It’s so naturally played you get the impression the two actors might have momentarily forgotten the camera was even rolling.

Michael Butler and Dennis Shryack’s script also gets great mileage juxtaposing Locke’s demure appearance with the hilariously profane dialogue that frequently pours from her lips. Physically she also gives just as good as she gets. Following a heated exchange over the threat posed by their pursuers Shockley slaps her across the face to which Gus responds by giving him a kick in the balls, insolently remarking, ‘Sorry, I just had to jog your memory!’ The two are, naturally, equals and born survivors, and the journey to Phoenix is as much about their growing fondness and respect for each other as it is about stuff blowing up. To be sure it’s all nonsense yet Eastwood the director somehow convinces us to suspend our disbelief (and believe me that’s no mean achievement given some of the stuff that happens in this movie). And there are some great one-liners along the way, especially the Hell’s Angelette who asks of Eastwood, ‘You wouldn’t hit a woman would you?’ with entirely predictable results. In fact even after all these years I can still remember the huge laugh that line got in the cinema where I first saw it.

The Gauntlet is also of note for the way it showcases Eastwood’s growing directorial ambitions. The early scenes introducing us to Shockley, his partner Josephson (Pat Hingle), Blakelock and Gus are tight, lean and economically staged in the familiar Eastwood tradition (good jazz score too) and the movie remains crisply directed throughout. The numerous action set pieces – most notably a helicopter/motorbike desert chase that culminates in the ‘copter crashing into some power cables, as well as the armor plated bus being shot to pieces whilst running the gauntlet of the title – proved to Hollywood, as well as some of the more alert critics, that Eastwood was more than capable of handling action on a scale unlike anything seen in his previous work. Great movie poster too. Kind of the epitome of Eastwood in his prime as the macho hero and tied with The Outlaw Josey Wales and its magnificent ‘An army of one’ tagline as the definitive Eastwood poster image of the 1970’s.

Sully (Clint Eastwood, US, 2016)

In the immediate aftermath of a miraculous landing by a crippled aircraft in New York’s Hudson river its captain Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) finds himself acclaimed as a hero for saving the lives of all onboard even as an official investigation questions his decision to make a water landing when all their computer simulations suggest a return to the airport would have been the safest option. With his career and reputation on the line did Sully make the right decision in trusting his instincts or did he recklessly endanger the lives of his passengers and crew?

This true life tale of the so called ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ – in which minutes after takeoff a US Airways Airbus with 155 lives on board lost both engines after a bird strike and forced the plane’s captain into an emergency landing in the middle of the Hudson river – works as both an impressionistic portrait of a man caught in a media firestorm and of someone whose entire life appears to have been preparing him for precisely such a moment. Eastwood’s direction, Blu Murray’s editing and Hanks’ performance all combine to make it feel as if we’re inside Sully’s head in the bewildering aftermath of an event that has turned his world upside down. One senses the disorientation he feels at being kissed, hugged and called a hero by complete strangers. We feel Sully’s distress as the initial evidence from the crash investigation indicates his landing in the river was the wrong decision.

As with another of Eastwood’s impressionistic portraits of troubled souls – 1988’s magnificent Charlie Parker biopic Bird – the film’s structure is appropriately non-linear. The film jumps back and forth in time, replaying the disaster from multiple perspectives – that of Sully and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), the cabin attendants, assorted passengers – with each new perspective adding to the whole. When we get to the final flashback in which we see the entire event (just 208 seconds from accident to landing) from the viewpoint of Sully it’s as if we’re in a Vulcan mind meld with him, sharing exactly what’s going through his mind, evaluating the options, seeing each one closed off as the devastating nature of the accident becomes clear and realising that the only option is to put the plane down in the freezing winter waters of the Hudson. It’s like participating in the putting together of a cinematic jigsaw and what unifies all the pieces, the theme of Todd Komarnicki’s superb script, is the clash between Sully’s human instinct and the thing we’ve all come to detest in our modern age; the emphasis on rules, process, protocol and procedure which conspire to treat human initiative as A Bad Thing.

Hanks gives a superbly subtle performance here and makes the character’s ordinariness a virtue. It’s that very quality, which seems in such short supply today, that makes Sullenberger – both the character and the man – so admirable. Variety contributor Owen Gleiberman wrote a great piece about this entitled The Beauty of ‘Sully’: How Clint Eastwood Turned Chesley Sullenberger Into a Countercultural Hero which I highly recommend reading. As Sully’s co-pilot Jeff Skiles the excellent Aaron Eckhart comes across as a coil of nervous energy, a man unfailingly loyal to Sully and possessed of a delightful sense of humour. He’s the perfect counterbalance to his straight arrow captain and the moment when Sully tells him that they landed the plane together feels so gracious, so richly deserved, it packs a huge emotional wallop. Laura Linney is also effective as Sully’s harassed wife – we only ever see her in short dialogue scenes on the phone with her husband but the actress gets the emotional temperature of each scene,  especially her first one, spot on – and there are nice thumbnail sketches from the actors playing the passengers. I was also especially impressed by Ann Cusack, Jane Gabbert and Molly Hagan as the flight attendants on board the stricken airliner. They’re only in a small number of scenes but completely convincing in their professionalism and chemistry with each other.

The biggest and best surprise of all though is a scene stealing performance from actor Patch Darragh as real life air traffic controller Patrick Harten. He was the man who took Sully’s mayday call that cold January day and tried to guide him to a nearby airport. When radio contact was lost and all reports indicated the plane was heading for the water, Harten – knowing full well that planes don’t survive water landings – blamed himself for what he thought was a catastrophe. Darragh has the task of conveying both the professionalism of his character and his emotions as the true scale of the disaster gradually becomes apparent. That he does so in little more than a few minutes of screentime is seriously impressive. It’s a great thing in a movie like this to watch the big stars doing their thing when some little character actor you’ve never heard of comes along and in what amounts to little more than an extended cameo blows you away. That’s what this guy achieves here. Nice one, Patch.

Sully is yet another brilliant example of Eastwood’s fondness for working in genre, for remaining faithful to what viewers expect from a particular type of movie while subverting the formula in unusual ways. For example whilst it’s nominally a disaster movie the soap opera subplots that are so much a characteristic of the genre are kept well at bay here. The handful of passengers that we do get to know have backstories sketched in with admirable brevity and economy. Most audaciously is that for a disaster movie this is really an anti-disaster movie. Nobody dies and everybody’s saved and yet Sully still packs enormous tension and moments of sheer terror during the flight sequences because Eastwood handles the material with such understatement you never feel you’re being manipulated and thus the impact is all the greater. A scene in which Sully is told how many survivors there are is staged with such gentleness, such kindness toward the characters on the part of its director, it is a marvel of subtlety and all the more powerful for it.

Even as Sully suffers recurring nightmares of what could have happened (in one of the film’s most sobering moments an office worker watches from a window as a passenger jet flies low between New York’s skyscrapers and one senses exactly what he’s thinking), Eastwood’s film shows that if human beings have the capacity to turn the image of a jetliner over a skyscraper into something as obscene as 9/11 they equally have it in them to reconfigure such images into those of human triumph. As one of the film’s characters adroitly observes, ‘It’s been awhile since New York had news this good – especially with an airplane in it.’ Like Eastwood’s tremendous Invictus (2009) this represents a vivid snapshot of a moment in time when a city and a country was reeling from a succession of bad news stories and needed inspiration. With the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’, it got what it needed. It’s also not hard to see what attracted Eastwood to the story. A tale of a man who trusted his instincts and in so doing triumphed over all the second guessers and armchair theorists directed by a filmmaker who has built one of the most astonishing careers in cinema on trusting his own instincts. It’s kind of a perfect combination.

The Birth Of A Legend

53 years ago an American television actor accepted the starring role in a low budget Italian-German-Spanish co-production of a remake of a Japanese samurai movie, at a time when the very notion of Americans acting in European movies was regarded in Hollywood as the kiss of death for their careers. Seriously, how wrong can you be? Joe Leydon has a good summation of the impact of the Clint and Leone trilogy here.

Jersey Boys (Clint Eastwood, US, 2014)

The story of how young and gifted singer Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young), and close friends Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) and Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda), three juveniles from New Jersey with dubious criminal connections – along with brilliant singer-songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) – became the smash hit pop group The Four Seasons and the internal pressures caused by the behaviour of Tommy, that plunged Valli into decades of tour dates to pay off his friend’s gambling debts, that ultimately drove them all apart.

Based on a hit stage production, a so called ‘jukebox musical’ built around a string of Four Seasons hits, this movie version isn’t a traditional musical with its characters all singing and dancing so much as it is a drama with music. Yet Eastwood’s fondness for working in genre and giving the audience what they want while quietly subverting the rules means the drama and the music come together in unusual ways. The film boasts the usual meticulous, subtle recreation of period one has come to expect from an Eastwood historical biopic (the film ranges from 1951-1990) yet it also includes old fashioned rear projection scenes clearly meant to evoke something of the stylised reality of those old Hollywood musicals. That the lads come from a working class world with connections to organised crime gives Clint the opportunity to have some fun with a few of the cliches of the genre, e.g., the feared local Godfather (Christopher Walken) whose barber accidentally cuts him when he’s having a shave, a bloody hit in a car that turns out to be a wind up and a laugh out loud tip of the hat to Joe Pesci’s most famous screen role. Eastwood gets the tone of these early scenes just right. We’re aware that none of these characters are angels but by the same token none of them are so unpleasant that we end up alienated by their behaviour. It’s a nice balancing act.

Right the way through the movie the band members routinely break the so called fourth wall, looking into the camera to directly address the audience, sometimes even smack in the middle of a musical number. Try as I might I can’t think of another film that’s done this. Sure, we’re all familiar with dramas where a single character addresses the audience directly – but this is multiple characters offering differing perspectives and in a period piece? I think that’s probably unique. Eastwood handles the ups and downs of the bands life on the road – including a blazing domestic row between Valli and his wife following an endless series of tour dates, plus a later sequence in which Valli’s teenage daughter Francine dies of a drug overdose – with a briskness and an emotional honesty that is downright bracing. And in the aftermath of his daughter’s burial the scene in which an exhausted Valli reluctantly agrees to sing the opening lines of what turns out to be one of the era’s great songs, Can’t Take My Eyes Off You, clearly thinking of his beloved daughter as he does, proves really moving.

As usual with an Eastwood pic the ensemble cast are uniformly excellent with Marshall Brickman and Rick Elise’s script giving each character distinctive personalities and problems. John Lloyd Young who played Valli in countless stage performances seems equally at home here as the singer gifted with a brilliant falsetto voice but whose nice guy demeanour means he ends up sacrificing the best years of his life for an endless tour of club dates in order to pay off the gambling debts of fellow band member, childhood friend and all round cheap hood, Tommy DeVito. Piazza is perfect as the latter, his crudeness perfectly encapsulated in the scene where he emerges from the shower and demands a towel, not so he can dry himself but so he can blow his nose on it. Of the remaining two band members Michael Lomenda is the proverbial fifth wheel, the guy who quietly does his bit until he finally explodes with fury in the film’s latter half after having suffered Tommy’s behaviour for years, while Erich Bergen turns in a sensitive, charming and scene-stealing performance as Bob Gaudio, the geeky song-writing genius behind the band’s greatest hits. Gaudio’s initial encounter with their flamboyantly gay record producer Bob Crewe is an absolute hoot, ‘This was an era,’ Gaudio dryly observes, ‘in which Liberace was thought to be merely theatrical’! There’s also juicy supporting performances from the likes of Renee Marino as Valli’s wife, Christopher Walken, neatly cast against type as an avuncular local Godfather and Mike Doyle as record producer-svengali, Bob Crewe.

In a nod to the musical’s stage origins the movie features a big song and dance routine that ropes in not just the main players but the entire supporting cast. Eastwood withholds this until right at the end but when it comes it feels so well earned after all the trials and tribulations the band have gone through that it proves downright exhilarating. The film’s thematic point; that the struggle this tight knit group of young men go through to escape their environment through their art – in this case their music – paradoxically ends up as the most vital time of their lives and something they spend their older years trying to recapture the essence of – proves both wise and touching. The director’s characteristic empathy for his characters, his refusal to judge any of them, feels just as heartfelt as his film’s evocation of a lost time and way of life.

American Sniper (Clint Eastwood, US, 2014)

Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), a US Navy SEAL, finds himself torn between two families; his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) who finds herself raising their son and daughter alone and the battlefield comrades who rely on his shooting skills to protect them from a legendary enemy sniper known as Mustafa during four gruelling tours of duty in Iraq. But after an ultimatum from Taya results in Chris coming home for good his desire to help fellow service members finds an outlet in assisting vets with PTSD.

Some Eastwood fans like to complain about how their hero hasn’t made a Western since 1992’s Unforgiven. Well those people should be very happy with American Sniper, a film infused with the sensibilities (not the least of which is the recreation of that iconic image of John Wayne framed in the doorway from the end of The Searchers) of the Ford/Hawks Westerns Eastwood so admires. Yet this is also a touching portrait of both a distinctive breed of American patriot (one that Hawks and Ford would instantly recognise) with something newer; a subtle, affecting and entirely non-melodramatic portrait of the PTSD syndrome which plagues so many combat vets on their attempt to assimilate back into civilian life. Bradley Cooper, massively bulked up here, with bushy beard and a convincing Texas accent, is both superb and quite unrecognisable as Chris Kyle, a good ol’ boy whose 1990’s dreams of becoming a cowboy are sidelined by his anger at the news footage of American embassies being bombed overseas. By the time 9/11 happens Kyle’s made it into the SEALS, just gotten married to Taya (a very good Sienna Miller whose chemistry with her co-star is so natural you never once question their pairing as a couple) and then it’s off to Fallujah and the first of four relentlessly taut, harrowing and stunningly staged combat tours in which Kyle’s eye for a long-distance target makes him a natural as one of the snipers tasked with protecting his buddies on the ground.

Pretty soon Kyle’s unmatched ability to kill, whether it be kids, women or military age males, means the insurgents have put a huge bounty on his head, the hunt for the feared Islamist militant Zarqawi and his henchman known (with frighteningly good cause) as The Butcher goes disastrously wrong, there’s an enemy sniper named Mustafa who’s almost as good as Kyle and out to take him down, and Kyle’s all too brief trips home mean he’s practically a stranger in his own house (the film’s elision of time here – the way Kyle’s kids morph from babies to toddlers and then infants over the course of his four tours – is weird and unsettling) and the sheer psychological strain on Kyle, plus his inability to let go of his concern for his comrades, drives he and Taya’s marriage to breaking point. That is until an unexpected solution presents itself. Since this doesn’t open in the UK for another fortnight I don’t want to give too much more away. What I will say is that Jason Hall’s screenplay derives considerable power from its conception as a Western, that the way the film forces us to see events entirely from Kyle’s perspective is equally affecting, that the immense internal stress experienced by Kyle is primarily communicated through his body language and, especially, his eyes and poignantly offset by the sheer size of the man (honestly, Cooper is huge in this), that an old Ennio Morricone Western score is heartbreakingly utilised and that the emotional beats are defined by Eastwood’s habit of leaning back from – rather than into – them, and thus the sense that nowhere in the movie are you being fed a line of crap.

In short, there’s an authenticity and emotional honesty that transcends any lefty-liberal certitudes about the Iraq war being wrong, about the troops being kill crazy murderers and loonies, or about Bush being a war criminal. Such issues are simply not on the table here and rightly so. If, on the other hand, this is what you need before you feel comfortable watching a movie like this then forget it. This isn’t the movie for you. What else? Ah yes, Clint! The now 84-year old’s direction is a remarkable model of clarity and economy. Over the course of 134 minutes not a single shot feels wasted and the staging of a climactic siege by armed insurgents on the factory rooftop Kyle and his team are stuck on as a massive sandstorm engulfs them, is a breathtaking piece of staging – as remarkable for its visceral intensity as its nervy tension. It’s easily one of the most ambitious sequences Eastwood has ever done. Did I mention he was 84? Astonishing really. Eastwood’s command of cinematic technique aside, what’s equally impressive is the way the film subtly questions Chris’s values. At one point a fellow SEAL asks Kyle if the Bible he carries around is for show. ‘It’s just – I’ve never seen you read it’ he says. After that same man is killed by insurgents Kyle blames a letter the man wrote in which he hinted at reservations about the war as the cause of his death. And Kyle’s younger brother, clearly shaken at what he’s seen declares of Iraq, ‘Fuck this place’. In each instance the film asks you to consider Kyle’s reaction and make your own judgment as to the true nature of his character.

As Kyle keeps returning for multiple tours the crystal clear worldview instilled in him as a child by his own father – that people can be divided into three types; sheep, wolves and sheepdogs – appears increasingly blurred and leads to a conclusion so bitterly ironic, so tragic, that it leaves you stunned into silence. I left American Sniper with the feeling I’d seen a film by a master director straight out of the old studio system. It has that surety, that precision and confidence of purpose and above all – that humanism – which I always think marks out the great filmmakers. It manages to be both patriotic (in its protagonist who staunchly professes his belief in God, Country and Family – literally in that order) while subtly but insistently probing its protagonist’s beliefs while depicting the effect of war not just on Kyle, but on his family and his fellow serviceman as they attempt to integrate back into society. The psychological and physical toll all this takes on Kyle, the way ordinary noises can trigger stress, including a brilliant moment where the sound of combat – gunfire, screams, explosions – play on the soundtrack as the camera slyly dollies around Kyle sitting in his front room to reveal the tv set not even on, startlingly conveys what these men carry inside them more indelibly than any other movie I’ve seen. Certainly any Iraq-set movie and as of now American Sniper is, I think, easily the defining cinematic portrait of that conflict. As you’re probably aware, Eastwood’s blockbuster (over half a billion gross on a production cost of less than 60 million) inspired an awful lot of commentary – most of it banal beyond belief. There were some gems though including this defence of Chris Kyle from Middle East journalist Michael J. Totten and this review by former Vietnam vet Bob Kerr. Both are well worth reading.