“American Sniper,” the Chris Kyle story, a review

American Sniper

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Starring Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller

Any war movie is, by necessity, a movie of cliches.

War, it seems, is a cliched business. There are only so many ways to wage war on someone who has been designated the enemy. There are only so many ways to inspire men who might feel fear at the thought of battle, or death. There are commander officers/kings that don’t understand the necessities of war, and instead choose to try to implement rules for war. As if the act of killing can be distilled down into a checklist like process.

There is the hero, normally drawn into the conflict through some traumatic event that happens to either himself or his people/kingdom/country.

There will be unexpected deaths of the hero’s comrades.

There will be an equally skilled warrior on the other side of the conflict, against whom the hero will, ultimately, be forced to test his mettle and that of his men.

Achilles and Hector. Grant and Lee. Patton and Rommel.

You get the idea.

War is hell, and in hell, choices are made. Good and bad choices for the right and wrong reasons. And woe befall anyone who falls on the wrong side of the imaginary line drawn by their superiors. Snipers, such as Chris Kyle, are given a mission and the discretion to act. But that discretion is always challenged if a situation is grey instead of black and white. Eastwood shows this early as Chris is challenged by his superiors for killing a man whose wife claimed he was carrying a Koran. He responded “It was pressed metal, fired 7.62s, and looked like an AK-47. What do you think he was carrying?” before walking out.

In a bad war movie, all you see are the cliches. In a good war movie, you don’t care if you see the cliches.

Guess which category Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper falls into?

But here’s the thing: Eastwood isn’t giving us a war movie. He’s giving us a movie about one man, Chris Kyle, who happens to be in a war. And I don’t mean that Kyle is just the convenient narrative point of view for Eastwood’s vision of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. I mean that Chris Kyle is at war, and he has to fight until his war is done.

Telling the story of Chris Kyle, Navy Seal and the US Military’s deadliest sniper, American Sniper is based on the book by Chris Kyle.

First, some production stuff. A lot of this film was shot in Morocco, and every frame of every street puts us back in the 24/7 coverage hell of both the wars.

Second, let’s talk about the acting. Sienna Miller turns in an incredible Supporting Actress performance as Chris’ wife, who struggles to keep the family together in the face of Chris’ deployments and his understandable distance when he is back in the real world.

Bradley Cooper. Wow. The idea of an actor gaining or losing weight for a role, or getting in shape, or whatever, is nothing new, but Cooper gets lost becoming Kyle, a strong, stubborn, Texas cowboy. We get to see his transformation from aimless bronco-rider to Navy Seal candidate, to Seal, to Sniper, to “Legend” as the men under his watch call him. The only thing left of Cooper early on is his playful eyes, as he goes through the motions of learning what will be his military legacy.

As the film progresses, and Chris’ deployment time and kill total rises, even that slowly disappears, and Cooper is completely gone, submerged beneath not only the body of Chris Kyle, but behind the vacant eyes of a man for whom killing to protect his men comes easily, but for whom the day to day drudgery and savagery of the conflict has taken its toll.

Not until he does what he never does–quits–do the playful eyes of the husband and father begin to return. It is not an easy process, nor even a process that is complete by the time the film comes to its stark end.

His soul is racked by guilt, not only for the kills he made against all insurgents (not just the men, but women and children), but also for the men under his protection that he didn’t save. Chris Kyle is a hero who is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.

In the climactic battle, Chris ultimately eliminates the enemy’s top sniper, a man who is used as an offensive force, as opposed to Chris, who plays the protector, eliminating those threats to his men: those actively shooting, or planting an IED, or butchering children who speak to Americans.

The crux of Chris’ conflict is that he is confident that every shot he took, every kill he was credited for–man, woman, and child–was necessary to save countless American soldiers. And he’s right. But the human soul, as aggressive and primitive and violent as it can be, also contains a respect for life, a love of living, and a regret for having to take it. Beneath the thin veneer of civility mankind has been able put atop that primitive man, he lurks just below, when needed. Wars are often started by the civilized diplomats, but they are always–always–finished by the warrior.

Part Hurt Locker, part Enemy At The Gates, part Zero-Dark-Thirty, Eastwood’s American Sniper is all of those things and so much more, driven by Cooper’s outstanding performance.

Perhaps the most ringing endorsement of American Sniper is this: when the final scene hit, and the credits rolled, the theater was silent.

Completely, 100%, silent.

Eastwood has given us a masterpiece of a film, with a performance of Bradley Cooper’s career.

But it would not have happened at all had Chris Kyle not given himself to something he felt was worth spending his life protecting. He sacrificed himself to it on the altar of war, and, in the process, gave us a masterpiece of a man.


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