“American Sniper” is a complex portrait of a simple man. By “simple” I don’t mean to imply that Chris Kyle was stupid; merely that, like a lot of us, he wasn’t particularly self-reflective or complicated in his emotions. What he was was the perfect instrument for war, but one that didn’t work so well for peacetime.
Bradley Cooper gives a poignant performance as Kyle, a Navy SEAL and sniper who’s been dubbed the most lethal marksman in U.S. military history. After four tours in Iraq he is officially credited with 160 kills, and in all likelihood slew many more than that. This film, directed by Clint Eastwood with a screenplay by Jason Hall, based on the book by Kyle, is an attempt to get at the man behind the legend.
“Legend” isn’t just hyperbole; it’s what Kyle was referred to by his fellow soldiers. He was their eyes in the sky, the avenging angel from above, who perched on rooftops and covered the grunts on foot patrol from threats they couldn’t see. While he took so many human lives as to be staggering, Kyle saw it as protecting his buddies. In his calculus, he saves lives with his long gun and ice-cold reflexes.
Cooper, known for playing fast-talking schemers and loverboys, is barely recognizable here. Sporting a bull neck, thick beard and even thicker Texas twang, Cooper fully embodies the ethos of the Texas cowboy and unapologetic patriot that Kyle was. As his daddy taught him – along with marksmanship – there are three types of people in this world: sheep, wolves and sheepdogs. The dogs protect the sheep from the wolves.
The story, after an opening interlude about Kyle’s rodeo days, bounces back and forth between Iraq and stateside along with Kyle. Back home he woos and weds a fiercely smart and strong-willed woman, Taya (Sienna Miller). They start to have babies and build a life of normalcy. Except that Kyle will disappear for nine months at a time, and even when he’s back home he finds himself stuck in sniper mode, reacting to lawnmowers or family pets as deadly threats.
The movie shows just enough of Kyle’s domestic life to serve as a counterpoint to its real focus, the war. Eastwood doesn’t comment on the rightness or wrongness of our Iraq adventure, but simply deals with it on the ground as the troops did.
Unlike most war pictures, which tend to depict the chaos and madness of conflict, “American Sniper” shows battle from the controlled perspective of the marksmen, who take out enemies with surgical precision from hundreds of yards away. The worry here is not that you will be shot, but that you will shoot someone by mistake, or doom your comrades by failing to pull the trigger.
A couple of moments stand out, both involving children. In the first, Kyle witnesses an Iraqi mother passing what looks like a grenade to her son, who starts to move toward some American troops. Should he take out the boy? What if he’s wrong?
Later, Kyle kills an insurgent with an RPG. But then a little kid starts to creep toward the rocket launcher. “Don’t pick it up. Don’t pick it up,” Kyle chants from behind his scope trained on the kid’s back -- thinking of his own son while prepared to act if he must.
It’s a wrenching conundrum, to contemplate doing something terrible to prevent something even more terrible.
Excellent as it is, I suspect some people will be turned off by “American Sniper” because it celebrates someone like Kyle (who was murdered in 2013 while volunteering to help a troubled fellow veteran). He’s a throwback to an antiquated sort of cinematic manhood – resolute, remote, adept at violence – that has fallen out of favor in our age of irony and myth-busting.
But Eastwood & Co. aren’t trying to hold up Chris Kyle as an ideal, but present him as a real American doing an essential job many of us would pale at taking up. The sheep may quiver at the sight of the wolf, but the truth is the sheepdog makes us nervous, too.