“I need you to be human again…” sobs the longsuffering wife, and mother to the children of America’s deadliest ever military sniper Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) in this gripping film directed by Clint Eastwood. However, after more than 160 confirmed kills (with over 250 probable kills) that may be asking too much for any man.
Chris Kyle experienced something no other American and few other human beings have ever had to in the course of his life and military service. Over a course of about ten years he went on four different tours of duty, racked up the aforementioned service record, all the while trying balance a family life on the other end with his wife Taya. On the battlefield his fellow soldiers simply referred to him as “The Legend”. He was perhaps our generation’s answer to Audie Murphy. While Audie Murphy got to live out his life and become a movie star (and a quite good one at that) based on his exploits Kyle’s life was of course cut tragically short just a year or so after the release of his memoirs which inspired this movie.
Clint Eastwood is a very astute director. He did not set out to make an anti-war film here, although there is one to be found for those who are looking. He also did not set out to make a promotional video for the US Armed Forces. A veteran of the long forgotten Korean War, Eastwood is especially suited to the task of telling a soldier’s story, which he does here in a straight forward and earnest manner with very few frills.
There are many powerful scenes in this movie, but perhaps the best one is the scene where Kyle is talking to his nine months pregnant wife on a cell phone when their call is interrupted by an enemy ambush. We see here 21st century warfare in both the civilian and military side perfectly depicted. Taya screams and sobs helplessly into a telephone, hearing only the scattered sounds of gunshots and explosions, and occasional screams of agony coming back over the line while her husband continues to fight on against Iraqi “insurgents” and the chief antagonist of this movie, an Iraqi sniper whose prowess with his weapon are a match for Kyle.
‘American Sniper’ is a character study above all else, about how a regular human being handles the extraordinary stress of so much combat experience while still attempting to keep his own psyche intact. In one tantalizing scene, Kyle finally acquiesces to visit a psychiatrist, after a PTSD like incident ruins a family barbeque. It is here that the audience hopes that we will perhaps get a glimpse behind the curtain of the real Chris Kyle, but he is as evasive as ever to pin down. “I’m willing to answer to my creator for every shot that I took” says Kyle, and with that the subject is left alone.
That’s the frustrating part of this movie, but unless Eastwood wanted to fictionalize this account, it was the only approach to take. Instead we get glimpses into the tortured soul of Kyle in other ways such as during a car ride home from the funeral of a fallen comrade. Two weeks before being KIA, said friend had written a letter justifiably questioning the merit and purpose of the war he was currently engaged in. “That letter’s what killed him” says Kyle to his wife.
Bradley Cooper impresses me a little more in every movie I see him in, and this is undoubtedly his best work. He gained nearly fifty pounds of muscle and looks every part of the rough and tumble Texan that Kyle was in real life. His performance here carries this movie to heights it could perhaps not achieve on its own, turning this into one of the best of the post 9/11 generation of war movies including some very good recent films such as “The Hurt Locker”, “Zero Dark Thirty”, and “Lone Survivor”. Of all those movies, this one does the most thorough job of showing what combat operations are like in Iraq (of course of the three movies listed, only one was directly placed in Iraq I realize) with the day to day clearing of urban areas and whatnot. According to the Salon review of one key Iraq veteran, this movie also is the most realistic when it comes to said battles as well.
It is strange to consider now that these wars which began while I was still in high school now have nearly as many films dedicated to them as the Vietnam War. The films of these latter wars all share a similarity in that they are mostly individual character studies (with the exception of Lone Survivor) that show the psychological damage of war in a very analytical, almost clinical manner, rather than the broad sweeping “I love the smell of Napalm in the morning…” insanity of the Vietnam era moves.
Kyle, and other fellow soldiers refer to Iraqis as “savages” and there is ominous villainy music that plays whenever a rival Iraqi sniper is seen setting up. I found this to be the most disappointing part of an otherwise strong film. With “Letters from Iwo Jima” and “Flags of our Fathers” Eastwood demonstrated an ability to make a gripping war drama that treated the enemy with dignity and reverence instead of turning them into faceless targets like the Native Americans in the old westerns that the grizzled director cut his teeth in.
Chris Kyle undoubtedly saved many lives as a result of the lives he had to take. This was what he latched onto, and what many who revere him as a hero will take away as well, and there is definitely legitimacy to that argument. When he finally returned home for good, the only thing that made him feel human again was being able to help his fellow soldiers through counseling and mentoring. This is of course, what he died doing. A sad irony that closed the book on America’s deadliest sniper.
American Sniper gets a four out of five: GREAT.