Director: Clint Eastwood
Stars: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller
Year Released: 2014
Based on the autobiography of Chris Kyle, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, American Sniper is a war drama film by director Clint Eastwood and writer Jason Hall. Chief Petty Office Christopher Kyle was shot and killed by a former serviceman that he was trying to help after returning home from the war in Iraq.
I want to be clear that I have not read Christopher Kyle’s book, and am only reviewing his story as it is presented in the film. I only know about CPO Kyle from the movie and the few articles I have read about him online while gathering information to write this review.
When I first heard about this movie I dismissed it as another Lone Soldier meets Zero Dark Thirty, movies I appreciate but that had already met my “‘Murica kills stuff” quota. Then I read a review where the writer was in a packed theater and the people around him cheered every Chris Kyle confirmed kill portrayed on screen, which got me interested in a macabre way, that “slow down on the freeway when you pass an accident” way that seems to be a part of human nature. Then I learned it was a Clint Eastwood film, a guy that knows how to craft a movie on either side of the lens but that has a very different view of politics than I do. The topper though was Bradley Cooper, I am not a massive fan of the guy but have really enjoyed the films that he has been in so far and this seemed like a huge departure from his more comfortable roles. So, I decided I needed to at l;east give it a shot and see what all the fuss is about.
I am genuinely unclear on what Clint Eastwood and Jason Hall were trying to accomplish with this movie. From what I have read, the emotional conflict is more present in the movie than in the book, so I have to assume as a viewer this should be something I take into consideration. Then there is the character Mustafa, the Syrian sniper that is the Yin to Kyle’s Yang; a character that is actively hunting Kyle (possibly to claim the $80,000 reward on his head?) and easily the Navy Seal’s equal with a rifle. The thing is, this character is a totally manufactured plot device used for conforming to the three act rule of story telling. He was not a real part of the conflict from anything that I have read. So, we see this character in the movie to humanize Kyle’s aggression and provide a duality on a personal level; a lone sniper against the entirety of the insurgent forces in Iraq is a little much for a viewer to comprehend. So, I need to pay attention to Kyle’s emotions and his “good” human side that is trying to defeat a “bad” counterpart.
Okay, got it.
The film itself is well shot, from the moment we see Kyle’s eye magnified in the sniper scope mounted on top of his rifle we know he is focused and determined to fulfill his mission objective. There is no mistaking that everything we see on the screen has a purpose and Eastwood makes sure that these purposes are both subtle and obvious at the same time. We rarely see a shot of the desert, but we know the story is taking place in a sand covered city surrounded by a wasteland. The colors presented to us are drab and muted, the vitality of the world is only present when Kyle is stateside and either feeling ill-equiped for a “normal” life or when he has finally found peace (maybe?) within himself. In the war-zone all we get are shades of brown and grey, and Kyle’s eye through the scope.
Surrounded by a cast of tertiary characters (even Sienna Miller is second to the rifle), Bradley Cooper is truly in his element and playing the most transformative role he has played so far. At times it is hard to believe that this is the same guy that was speaking about the stock market in Limitless. If I were rating this film on the lead’s acting it would get a 5.0 without a doubt. Cooper does an incredible job of showing how Kyle relished his ability to kill the enemy, his inability to let go of his “calling” when he gets back home, his willingness to but hoping he doesn’t have to kill a young boy armed with an RPG. Even the final scene where Kyle places a revolver on a small ledge in his house before playing the role of a bear for his daughter moments before he meets the man that would end his life, gives the viewer a sense of hope for a man trained and celebrated for killing.
Was the point of this movie to glorify the hero that Christopher Kyle was? Was it to show the public horrors of war or the systematic way that we encourage a man to take the lives of over 155 fellow humans? Are we supposed to identify with the conflict of having the duty to kill a small child the instant he becomes a threat to one of our own? Or is this meant to be the story of a man that did his duty for his country, while keeping a Bible close at hand and the place that he found for himself once he returned home?
I don’t know. For me, American Sniper is the story of a man that was born and bred to be a “man”. He was the epitome of what it is to be an American; he enlisted (really though he was denied the first time and recruited later) in the Navy when he needed something more in his life and was inspired by attacks he saw on the news. He knew how to use a rifle and was good at it, so he became a Navy Seal sniper. He fell in love with a girl he met at the bar and overcame her protests about military men, married her and had two kids. His duty became that of a soldier and he considered every kill a part of his mission as a human, his uniform became his skin. When he returned home to his family, the war followed him and the thought of his gun not finding its target haunted him, so he would redeploy (a total of four times in the most violent of conflict zones). His mission soon became about his own ego, and when he finally killed his equal (maybe a metaphor for himself) and the enemy was closing in, he called his wife and told her that he was ready to come home.
I have no doubt that Christopher Kyle was a hero, but I do not believe it is for the number of confirmed kills he has but for the number of lives that he saved by stopping the enemy, which is something never looked at in this movie. American Snipe tells us about The Legend and the growing pile of bodies he has left in his wake, it doesn’t tell us how vital he was to the success of any mission in Iraq. In fact, the one time we see Kyle meet a man that he personally carried to safety, the man is unable to accept that he is a savior and does not return the salute the legless soldier gives.
For me the movie is a cautionary tale for all Americans that celebrate the death of the enemy, there is a cost for every death and whether it be 1 or 155, when we celebrate the loss of a life we fail as humans.