American Sniper is Clint Eastwood’s controversial biopic on the life of Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper), one of the deadliest snipers in American history, having piled up around 160 confirmed kills during his four tours in Iraq. The film is based off of Kyle’s autobiography, a book which contains quite a few questionable stories and passages that have created plenty of controversial backlash in the wake of the film’s release. While some claim that Chris Kyle is an American hero who served his country honorably and saved the lives of numerous fellow soldiers, others claim that he was a psychopath and a liar who enjoyed the feeling of the kill and felt no remorse for the Iraqis whose lives he took. Having not read the book myself, nor having ever met him before in my life, I’m going to avoid making any judgement on the real Chris Kyle, and not let extreme political opinions about the Iraq War alter my view of the film itself. Instead, in order to root out a fair criticism, I’m going to judge this movie as a movie alone, one that just so happens to involve a soldier and a war.
Like so many films before it, American Sniper shows how the violence of war has deep psychological effects on the men who fight in it. It shows us a man who is so driven by his innate feeling of duty to his country, that he’s willing to put it before everything else in his life. Where the film succeeds is in showing us the real stress and conflict when it comes to having to decide whether or not to pull the trigger on your enemies, even if those enemies sometimes come in the form as a woman or child. Saving the lives of fellow soldiers seems a fair enough priority to put before the lives of those who mean to do harm to them. Even if on the surface, one recognizes that it’s the right thing to do in the circumstances, deep down it’s hard to deny that taking lives is no real easy feat. I think that the film shows this, along with the thought that he couldn’t save more lives, as some the reasons for why Chris Kyle suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. So I think it’s safe to argue that Eastwood has presented us with a story that is anti-war, although it is ridden in themes of patriotism and heroism. But what we see here isn’t just a man who is credited with saving lives, but is known as a “legend” for taking them, a reputation that he carries with him to and from the battlefield and ultimately causes him to disconnect from his family life.
The story goes back and forth between Kyle’s soldier life and his family life in the duration of four tours. He enlists with the Navy SEALS after feeling a sudden responsibility to serve his country, and leaves behind his dreams of being a cowboy. Within a few years he meets his future wife, Taya (Sienna Miller) at a bar and marries her. Shortly after, 9/11 happens, and Kyle is sent off to Iraq to serve as a sniper. Here, he experiences exactly what serving his country entails, some of which includes constant danger, tough decisions, and loss of close friends. Every time he returns home he seems more and more distant. He becomes obsessed with the idea that if he isn’t on the battlefield looking out for his brothers, then no one will be looking out for them. He lets his unwavering patriotism drive him to carry that heavy responsibility on his shoulders, even if he doesn’t know exactly what he’s fighting for anymore. It isn’t until his wife, who eventually finds herself taking care of their two children on her own, offers him an ultimatum and he decides to leave the soldier life and return home for good, only to continue to face the psychological after effects of fighting in a war for so long.
Bradley Cooper is impressive in his transformation into Chris Kyle. Even though his character never fully expresses what’s going on in his mind other than “I must serve my country,” you can tell from the performance alone that there’s a bit more stirring beneath the surface than just blind patriotism. He thinks things and feels things that he might feel too ashamed to say out loud, but they’re there. I don’t know if this was definitely the case for the real Chris Kyle, but that’s the man Bradley Cooper brought to life on the screen. A patriotic, yet somehow, deeply troubled human being who let his sense of duty envelop him and his entire life a little too much for his and his family’s own good. This is the best performance I’ve seen yet from Bradley Cooper, and certainly deserving of his Oscar nomination.
Eastwood succeeded in creating a tense and suspenseful atmosphere especially when it comes to Cooper’s character locating a target through the scope of his rifle and deciding whether or not they’re a threat. The scene from the trailers where you see him with his finger on the trigger while watching a woman and a child who may or may not be carrying a weapon, is a scene that opens the movie and immediately sets the dark tone through the harsh realities of war. It is during times like these where the movie is most intriguing.
The movie does have its weak points, though, and some of those include the time spent on the relationship between Kyle and the supporting characters. I can’t even remember his friends’ names let alone the actors who played them. His wife didn’t have much of a role either. It would have helped to see how deep her struggle went as a wife who didn’t know whether or not her husband was going to come home every time he left. This is the same kind of a problem I noticed in Selma, where the main character shines but the side characters fade into the background. I know this movie is about Chris Kyle and not the others, but it’s the relationships he forms with these other characters that would have helped his character develop a little more all around. Instead, I felt detached from him as viewer. I would have also been curious to see where his brother ended up after he saw him for a brief moment and he was clearly shaken by the war after one tour, but he wasn’t around even after Kyle comes home for good.
The ending also seemed very abrupt to me. After he leaves the military, he clearly has issues to sort out, and he does so by helping veterans, which is a great piece of story that leads him on the road to recovery psychologically, but there’s hardly any time spent with that. You spend so much time with this person and his personal struggles, and then just when he seems to be getting better, he dies, and it happens off screen. Sorry if anyone sees this as a spoiler, but if you’re going to watch a biopic you should at least have an idea by now of whether the person it’s about is still alive or dead. Either way, it’s hard not to feel cheated in the end.
I know some people have been making a huge deal out of the fake baby used in one of the scenes between Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller. I’m not one for nitpicking, but it was blatantly obvious, I noticed it even before I heard anyone say anything about it. It took me right out of the scene, which was supposed to be an emotional one, or at least I think it was because Miller was crying in it, but I have no idea what was said. That’s how distracting it was.
American Sniper is a good movie for what it is, which is, a war movie showing the effects of war on a specific soldier. If you go in already hating Chris Kyle and everything he stood for, you’re not going to enjoy this. But if you can put all the controversies and your political bias aside, I’d say this movie is an enjoyable one and worth seeing. Is it a truthful depiction of America’s most lethal sniper? I have no idea. But what I can say for sure is that despite its flaws, I still found it to be an intriguing and moving story of a man who pays a great price for the time he spent serving his country, and that’s something that was, is, and will always be relevant.