By Linc Leifeste | January 16, 2015
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writers: Jason Hall, Chris Kyle (book)
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Luke Grimes, Jake McDorman, Kyle Gallner, Brian Hallisay, Keir O’Donnell, Sam Jaeger, Max Charles, Cory Hardrict, Sammy Sheik
Chris Kyle is a controversial figure, hero to some, symbol of America’s ills to others. For many it’s hard to know exactly how to approach a man like Kyle, solely on the grounds of his being credited as the most lethal sniper in U.S history. The fact that his many long-distance kills were carried out in the midst of the Iraq War, one of the most unpopular in this nation’s recent history, further muddies the water. And his being seen as something of a champion of the war and of American gun culture upon his return, leading to his embrace by more right-leaning elements of our society, seals the deal.
Simply put, a patriotic, gun-loving, former rodeo cowboy Texan turned military killing machine is not the first character type you think of to receive a sympathetic treatment from Hollywood. But enter Clint Eastwood, a director whose politics and world view and conversations with empty chairs have been known to spark a bit of controversy in their own right. But more importantly, politics aside, Eastwood’s a smart, thoughtful master behind the camera, even if his film work in his later years, in my opinion, has seen a bit of a decline. Eastwood does Kyle the justice of telling his story from his perspective, sympathetically if not reverently, while allowing the truth of his time and place to tell a bigger story. There’s never a doubt that Kyle is the hero here, worthy of the viewer’s admiration and sympathy, but it’s hard to come away from American Sniper without feeling like the price Kyle and his brothers in arms paid was way too high.
Opening with a masterfully executed scene rife with tension, sniper Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is on an Iraq rooftop guarding American troops moving through the streets. He soon spies a woman and young boy approaching the soldiers and it’s clear the woman is carrying something. He then sees her hand what appears to be an explosive device to the boy. He’s sighted in but obviously hesitant to shoot. From there we’re suddenly taken back to scenes from Kyle’s childhood, that feel like stilted set pieces: him killing a deer on a hunting trip with his stern father, hearing a sermon at church, receiving black and white lessons from his father on the appropriate use of violence when it comes to bullies. From there we jump forward to an adult Kyle, now a rodeo cowboy but unsatisfied with the direction of his life, who is motivated to join the military after the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings.
Kyle, at the age of 30, goes through Seal training, the exacting rigors of which are adequately portrayed and soon meets his future wife, Taya (Sienna Miller). The two have a flirtatious courtship, momentarily interrupted by our society’s game-changing events of September 11, 2001, before they are married. And then Kyle is off to Iraq and the heart of the film and we’re right back on that street with him sighted in on the young Iraqi boy approaching his fellow soldiers while carrying an explosive device. Two quick shots later, he’s recorded his first kills as a sniper, but it’s clear there’s not much to celebrate. He’s done his job and carried out a necessary evil, but at what cost?
Eastwood and company masterfully capture the fear, tension, despair, anxiety, depression and anger that are the American experience in Iraq. For better or worse, the film does not delve into the politics behind the conflict nor look at the motivations of those fighting against the Americans. Instead the film plays out in the vein of a classic Western, with Kyle having to ultimately track down and do battle with his evil doppelgänger, Syrian Olympic sharpshooter medalist turned terrorist sniper, Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), who has been picking off American troops, including a friend or two of Kyle’s. It’s in this showdown storyline that Eastwood risks turning his film into a simple old-fashioned war movie, the film appearing to have a black and white morality exactly to the extent that the viewer embraces that storyline as the heart of the film.
But Eastwood in his direction and Cooper in his performance are too smart for that. Eastwood shows the suffering of helpless Iraqi families at the hands of brutal savages while also showing the toll that this ugly warfare in a lawless land takes on the soldiers waging the battles day in and day out. And while Chris Kyle may have talked the talk of a soldier content with the obligations of carrying out his mission, Cooper’s performance masterfully reveals the damage done in his inability to communicate with his wife or to face the demons that would come home with him after each of his tours of duty. Packing on pounds of muscle, he seemingly effortlessly manages to embody Chris Kyle, able to present a conflicted creature through a sadness in his eyes just underneath his outward confidence and stated lack of remorse. Their accomplishment, by the time the credits rolled, was not in causing me to think differently about the Iraq War or about Chris Kyle individually, but instead to make me think anew of the price paid by those who served in that awful war and the great gulf that necessarily exists between them and those of us who didn’t.