Film Review – American Sniper
Chris Kyle was a real life figure who was credited as being the deadliest sniper in American history. He happened to have a real gift for doing one of the worst and most psyche destroying jobs there is: shooting people with deadly accuracy. Yet he was also a man who kept a lot of his stress inside and rarely seemed to waiver in his belief that fighting the war in Iraq was just. His career and skills are profiled in the well crafted film American Sniper.
Bradley Cooper is terrific in the starring role. His Chris Kyle is very internalized. The job of a sniper requires staying extremely calm in the most stressful situations. He starts out in the late 90s as a shiftless cowboy in Texas. But heeding the call of patriotism he volunteers for the Navy Seals which happens to be the most difficult training in the military. What drives him is his un-waivering belief that he is saving lives. Civilian lives in America sure, but mainly he’s concerned with his brothers on the battlefield. That is the likely truism for most all soldiers. They fight to protect each other. It’s not about politics to them. It’s about the guy next to you.
Sienna Miller is equally terrific as his long suffering wife. During his various trips home between tours of duty that he keeps volunteering for she increasingly sees the distance that he is away from her. Even when he’s home he’s not really home. And her frustration with his unwillingness to share with her is palpable.
Clint Eastwood‘s direction of the action is taught and lean. The Hurt Locker covered some similar ground as this tale. But that movie was portrayed as almost a thriller at times. The main character was kind of addicted to the adrenaline rush of defusing bombs. In American Sniper, Eastwood is much more spare in his depiction of battle. There are some harrowing scenes, especially in the opening, when Kyle has a child in his cross-hairs and has to decide if the kid is a credible threat to his soldiers. These moments definitely are weighing on his conscience and soul. But there are few vicarious thrills for him to have here.
This prolonged and repeated stress on Chris Kyle definitely takes it’s toll. In one telling scene, his wife tricks him into getting his blood pressure taken and finds that it’s alarmingly high even when he is calmly sitting down. It’s a short indicator that this guy was just living the dial quietly turned up to 11 all the time. In another scene, during the funeral of a fallen comrade, a 21 gun salute is fired next to him and he is the only one in attendance who doesn’t flinch. We get the impression he is beyond the ability to register physical alarm anymore. It is hard to retain your humanity when you live that stressed for years on end.
It is possible that Republicans in particular will love this movie. Chris Kyle is seen as an American hero. He is un-waivering in his statements that America is the greatest country on earth. And most tellingly, the enemy is given next to no character or depth.
However, it feels like this was a choice by Eastwood based more on character than politics. Take for example Million Dollar Baby. Clint was given a lot of flack over what some thought was an endorsement of assisted suicide. However he firmly stated that he wasn’t making a political statement on the subject, the film was just staying true to what those specific characters would do. It seems the same here in American Sniper. To this guy, he almost had to make the enemy nameless so he could do his job. And in fact, when his target ends up being someone like a mother or child who he obviously knows is morally wrong, it tears him up.
The one area where this movie slops over into action movie jingoism is it’s portrayal of “The Butcher”. He is a sniper on the other side that is shown as cold instrument of evil. He’s just as deadly as our hero and the missions that deal with finding him feel a bit too much like a Ivan Drago type of anti-American bogey man. That may have happened in real life, but the film’s depiction of him is when it slides closest to propaganda instead of nuanced portrayal.
Still, especially because of Bradley Cooper’s exceptional performance, American Sniper is well worth seeing. Clint Eastwood’s spare, non-showy style fits the material well. And it is an interesting look into some very recent history.