American Sniper tells the story of Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in American military history. With 160 confirmed kills out of a probable 255, Kyle did four tours of duty in Iraq as part of SEAL Team 3. The film is a largely straight-forward look at his life. The battlefield scenes are repetitive and familiar, while the home scenes, depicting a man becoming more and more detached with each tour, are engrossing.
Kyle (Cooper) grew up in Texas and showed amazing marksman abilities starting at age eight, when he got his first gun. As the film opens, he’s a rodeo rider struggling to make ends meet. After the 9/11 attacks, he feels it his duty to join the military and help out however he can. During training, he meets Taya (Miller) at a bar. The two would go on to marry and have two kids.
American Sniper is at its freshest and most insightful when examining the physical and mental effects warfare takes on a soldier. Kyle may have been over there doing his job, but he was still killing human beings – in some cases children trained by enemy forces. When he’s home, he can’t stop thinking about what is going on Iraq. He can’t relax knowing his friends are in danger around the clock. It consumes his life. He would find solace after being honorably discharged in 2009 in helping fellow soldiers suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He became a regular at the local VA just to support comrades as they recover from injuries and attempt to re-enter normal life.
The battlefield sequences, of which there are many, are sadly old hat at this point. Seeing the action from a sniper’s point of view adds some complexity to the situations. Director Clint Eastwood wrings suspense out of scenes where Kyle must decide whether or not to kill men, women, and children. Being a sniper also means being a really good guesser of actions in out-of-control scenarios. It’s still all-too-familiar for the most part, with Americans gunning down nameless, faceless Iraqis in droves while an Iraqi occasionally shoots an American. Cliches also abound. Has a soldier’s wedding ever not been interrupted by orders to deploy? Screenwriter Jason Hall does work in a subplot involving a sharp-shooting enemy sniper that muddies the moral waters. Both of these guys are highly-skilled at their jobs, but is one more “right” than the other?
Bradley Cooper is excellent in the title role, portraying Kyle as a determined man of the highest order. He shines in the scenes in which he must confront his own post-traumatic stress and what it means for his family. Hall’s screenplay and Cooper’s performance add much-needed depth to what could have otherwise been a very routine war film. Sienna Miller also shines as Taya, whose character really stands for calm in a crazy world.
American Sniper is easily Eastwood’s best film since the two-part Flags of Our Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima saga in 2006. It’s pretty much impossible to show us something new in terms of Iraq War battles, but the non-battlefield scenes carry an emotional resonance that rightfully comes across as more important. The final frames of American Sniper will catch those that don’t know Kyle’s story off-guard. They’re unflinching and sad, much like the wars in which he fought.
Studio: Warner Bros.
Length: 134 Minutes
Rating: R for strong and disturbing war violence, and language throughout including some sexual references.
Theatrical Release: December 25, 2014 (Limited) / January 16, 2015 (Wide)
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Written by: Jason Hall. Based upon the book by Chris Kyle.
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Luke Grimes, Kyle Gallner, Jack McDorman