American Sniper

Directed by:  Clint Eastwood

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Sammy Sheik, and Cory Hardrict

The recent shootings at Charlie Hebdo and the subsequent anti-terrorist operations have brought terrorism and the conflict in the Middle East to the forefront.  A film about the deadliest sniper in U.S. history and his service in Iraq is either ill-timed or perfectly timed, depending on one’s perspective.

Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) was raised in Texas.  His father was tough, and he taught Chris how to hunt at a young age.  He told Chris early in life that there were three kinds of people in this world.  There are people who are sheep or victims; there are wolves who are bullies; and finally there are sheepdogs.  Sheepdogs are the type of people who rise up and fight to defend others.  Chris’s father insisted that Chris and his brother Jeff grow up as sheepdogs.  As an adult, Chris and his brother travelled around riding horses in rodeos, but Chris wanted more.  After he saw U.S. embassies bombed abroad, Chris decided to join the military at the ripe old age of 30.

Chris survived the rigorous Navy SEALs’ training and found that his previous hunting experience prepared him to work as a sniper for the military.  While he was celebrating the completion of his Seals’ training at a local bar, Chris met Taya (Sienna Miller).  He relentlessly pursued her, and eventually, they got married.  After 9/11, Chris was deployed to Iraq where he became known as the Legend.  Chris was the deadliest sniper in U.S. history with more than 160 confirmed kills.  The film follows Chris’s journey through four brutal tours of duty in Iraq, marriage and fatherhood.  The movie captures the struggle Chris endured transitioning back and forth from Iraq to normal life in the U.S.

Based on a true story and Chris Kyle’s autobiography, American Sniper is a powerful drama.  Eastwood smartly steers away from the controversy surrounding Kyle, Jesse Ventura and other issues and focuses on Kyle’s tours of duty.  Eastwood keeps audiences engaged with plenty of tense, heart-pounding action sequences and small, but dramatic guerilla warfare battles. He even leaves his mark on audiences at the end of the movie with his decision to have the credits roll without any music. As the audience exited my theater, the silence was deafening.  It was as if music would have diminished or cheapened the story we had just witnessed. 

Chris Kyle’s life story is all the more compelling because it is true.  It is not inspiring in the way that Louis Zamperini’s tale is in Unbroken.  Kyle’s world is dark, twisted and frightening.  He was a deadly sniper. Kyle did what he needed to do to protect his comrades and his country, but watching him gun down young children was difficult. 

As Kyle, Bradley Cooper delivers a powerful performance.  Not only does he physically gain a substantial amount of weight for the role, but Cooper captures Kyle’s southern drawl and macho demeanor. More significantly, Cooper displays Kyle’s patriotism, his bravery and his commitment to help others.  Without articulating it in words, he conveys the toll the brutality of war takes on Kyle.  With subtle looks and a stiffening of his spine, Cooper captures how Kyle’s unwavering, unquestioning belief in his country helped him cope with the atrocities of war.

My one criticism of the film, aside from a few slow moments, is that it oversimplifies the war.   Perhaps that was a deliberate choice because for Kyle and others, it had to be “America versus the savages.”  However, the historical debate over the justification for the Iraq war makes this story somewhat controversial.  On the one hand, the Iraqis are depicted as and regularly called “savages.”  They are vicious animals who torture children with power drills, cut off heads and use women and children as suicide bombers.  On the other hand, the innocent Iraqi citizens who weren’t engaged in savage acts could be seen as persons defending their country from invaders.  Eastwood alludes to the fact that one person killed by Kyle may have been innocent, but it is only fleeting and never fully explored. So in some ways, the film feels like it glosses over history. 

American Sniper earns a 0.03% rating.  It is a compelling true story and Clint Eastwood’s best film in years.  American Sniper is not as good as Zero Dark Thirty, but it does deliver.