American Sniper is the story of a brilliant marksman, Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), credited with more than 160 confirmed kills in Iraq. Never meant to be a 100 percent true version of Kyle’s life, we are asked to consider the differences between Kyle the human and Kyle the Super-Human killing machine throughout. This is a distinction that very much interests old Hollywood-hand, the former action-film acting superstar and now director, Clint Eastwood. Indeed, it’s not a reach to see Eastwood’s role in the film as the conduit/auteur of abstract truth, attempting to sort out the in-between modes that divide the legendary from the ordinary in much the same way he already did in Unforgiven.
The real Chris Kyle, whose boastful biography was number 2 with a bullet on the New York Times bestseller list, enjoyed temporary stardom on the daytime talk show circuit more with tales about murdering car jackers who tried to mug him in a Texas parking lot, getting into a bar fight with the ex-pro-wrestler and governor of Minnesota, Jesse Ventura, and being hired by the sinister Blackwater Organization as a sniper to hunt looters in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina than recounting anything about his military service. Clint Eastwood certainly isn’t interested in any of that stuff, though. The near-homicidal egoist of the book is replaced on screen by a humble Kyle. This is a pity because the less than self-effacing Chris Kyle some of us saw on Ellen DeGeneres’ chat show was a lot more interesting than the idealized soldier, and relentlessly patriotic and close- to-perfect Kyle we see onscreen.
What we get instead of a credibility gap to explain four separate tours is a vengeance war between Kyle and two savage foes. Iraq’s best badass sniper, Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), and the ‘Butcher of Fallujah’ (Mido Hamada). Neither of whom are mentioned in his memoir. Who Kyle actually killed isn’t shown with clarity in the film, but looks like anybody who’s clearly—but mostly from a distance—an Arab of military age, which is fair as it’s war, right?
To be fair to Eastwood, however, the recent movie about Kyle’s friend, Marcus Luttrell, Lone Survivor (2012), died like a wounded dog at the box-office, thanks to its director Peter Berg’s obsession with truth telling. Eastwood is not so naive. Clearly there are issues of truth to ponder here, so many of our current crop of veterans are often a cruel afterthought in our lives.
After a number of riveting sniper situationals and war scenes, the American Sniper returns home. “There’s a strange man in my bedroom,” Taya Kyle (Sienna Miller), says after the sad, misbegotten SEAL returns from his first tour. No way he’s into sharing his experience and Miller does a fine job of facilitating the way in which his wife is clearly just as much a victim of the war as her husband. It’s pretty cliched ground, but Miller is still remarkably tuned into the complexities of her man. His quiet commitment and loyalty are all she’s got, too. War—pointless in questioning—cuts a very fine emotional scar we can only see, not understand.
Maybe it’s not really hard to execute an enemy 1500 yards on the horizon and think about his wife and kid. Kyle is numb to everything going on around him. Even Robocop seems more empathetic by comparison. Kyle kills from a distance and he kills well, taking no true joy in it. Yet even a focused warrior like Kyle is damaged by his mission. Whichever war it is, it damages the soul. The missions he accomplishes and the size of his gargantuan rep are not a part of the baggage any of us might want to carry twenty or thirty years hence.
Bradley Cooper shows some good chops here. Having stuck to comedies and romances thus far, he brings much placidity and a surprising stillness to this role. A nice Jewish boy from Philadelphia, he is almost zen-ishly transformed into a cool, obedient, patriotic, obedient, family-loving, Lone Star-drinking state sanctified killing machine. Calm indeed, but edgy, kind of like Paul Newman’s Hud (1963). Bulked up to a T-shape, Cooper really gives you the sense that he’s killed and killed some more.
If you like war movies, this is just the holiday ticket.