American Sniper ***** (out of 5)
Starring: Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller
Written by: Jason Hall (screenplay); based on the book American Sniper by Chris Kyle, Scott McEwen, and James Difelice
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
**POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT**
“In this world, there are three types of people: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs”. That quote, used in the first five minutes of American Sniper by Wayne Kyle, the father of Chris Kyle, is the type of worldview that speaks only to certain people. I knew nothing of this soldier, and I cannot identify with that ‘alpha male’ type of code, so I began on the wrong path with this film. Well on my way to labeling it “Right Wing: The Movie”, I paused about ten minutes in, realizing that I was about to despise it for the absolute wrong purpose.
The moral of the story? Don’t allow yourself to be drawn into an irrational, biased view of this film. A multitude of irrational opinions have already come out on American Sniper, and they are based on the same kind of irrational thought. The film is simply about a man, and how his unique skills led him to be uniquely affected by a unique conflict. There are no grandiose political statements in this film, no force feeding of patriotism, and no obvious judgments on who is right or wrong. Simply, director Clint Eastwood has crafted an interpretation of what made the ‘most lethal sniper in U.S. history’ tick, and what four tours of duty did to that decorated soldier. Eastwood strips away most of the political pretense, and does his best to focus on what made Chris Kyle who he was. This is one hell of a film– not a work of propaganda. It manages to satisfy as both an action film and as an emotional roller coaster.
Chris Kyle was clearly affected by the terrorist activity here in the US. He dropped what he was doing (riding the rodeo circuit), and signed up to be a Navy SEAL. It obviously takes an extreme amount of dedication to become a SEAL, or at least that’s what I’ve heard (I’m certainly not up to the task). So we know what type of human being is capable of that extreme training- driven, maybe slightly arrogant, extremely patriotic, and possessing a modicum of natural ability. The film shows us that from an early age, Kyle was gifted using a weapon, and that’s where he specialized- as a sniper. We can see even from the film’s trailer the extreme amount of concentration it takes to lay still, sometimes for hours, in the pursuit of a sniper’s mission. Even then, the choices one is required to make are mind-boggling. How does one aim at a child, even the child of your enemy, even if it means saving your comrades? (Even if that kill didn’t actually take place) Wouldn’t that make anyone with a conscience struggle? Those decisions, which every soldier must make, inevitably create the possibility for a disconnect with reality- or at the very least a disconnect with normalcy.
Eastwood showcases Kyle’s personality by framing the story through his four tours of duty. Each time he deployed, his situations appeared slightly more dangerous than the previous, and his disconnect appeared to grow along with them. The more he succeeded at his job, the more notoriety he received amongst his fellow combatants and enemies alike. The movie seems to indicate that Kyle relished the notoriety, proud to flash his ‘Punisher’ style symbol on his gear and vehicle, marking his territory and giving away his position. One might say he was pride embodied, toeing the line between brave and brazen. At the same time, the film showed him as humble in the face of his peers, careful to accept too much praise. That careful balance Eastwood carries with the film gives the audience the chance to create their own interpretation of the man. From my perspective, the dread of seeing ‘Tour 1, Tour 2, Tour 3, and Tour 4’ may be a parallel, on a much smaller scale, to how his wife felt, or what Kyle himself felt. Bradley Cooper gives an incredible, transformative performance here as Kyle. Not only does he undergo the necessary physical transformation, but he somehow one-ups his prior performances on an emotional level here, making us believe in Chris Kyle as a leader of men.
I struggle with the idea of attempting to get inside the head of a soldier, having never had to make the types of serious decisions that they are required to make. I struggle as I wonder if he was a selfish man for leaving his family over and over. Did he give in to his competitive urges in his desire to eliminate a rival sniper (a character inspired by various Al Qaeda operatives)? Was his sense of duty and idea of patriotism so strong that he felt he was the only one to complete the mission, and he felt obligated simply to complete his job? Did he enjoy what his job was, or did he just see it as a job? These are the questions that the film asks us to ponder about the man, which brings me to the conclusion that he was very much a complicated man. I’m torn, for it appears that the right answer involves a little bit of everything.
The pinnacle of the film finds Kyle with a tactical team on a roof as an impending sandstorm lurks in the distance. At that moment, I found myself slowly gripping the arm rests, not sure how to place the anxiety I felt, not knowing how Kyle died, and being certain that something awful awaited him. That’s the type of tension this film cultivated. I was exhausted at the end, and I don’t feel as though I need to experience it again. The majority of the packed theater I was in stood during the finale, enthusiastically clapping, as one might do a hero returning home. Seeing the reaction to this film has been like witnessing a cultural phenomenon, especially in how we as a society process and interpret information and entertainment. It speaks to the divide most of us have about how to process war in general, and how to mend our veterans upon their return.
There isn’t a point of view criticizing this film that really works. The negative thoughts are all coming from the wrong angle. It is possible that other veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom experienced a different war than what Chris Kyle did? Certainly. It is also possible that various parts of this story have been exaggerated, or in some cases, fabricated? Most definitely. Does the film achieve an emotional and tension-inducing level that most films cannot replicate? Absolutely. For those filmmaking achievements alone, American Sniper is one of the year’s best films, and may just end up winning best picture. As for Kyle, the man? I’d say we’re free to debate what his life was about; the mark of this great film is that it hasn’t decided for us what that is.