It’s a powerful, riveting, thought-provoking, heart-wrenching, disturbing, and controversial motion picture that has received both euphoric praise and vitriolic vilification. It’s $89 million opening weekend take at box office set a record for January, and it has received six Academy Award nominations including best picture and best actor. The film is “American Sniper,” a stunning war drama based upon Chris Kyle’s autobiography titled “American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. History” and directed by Academy Award-winner Clint Eastwood. During his four tours of Iraq Kyle had 160 confirmed and 255 probable kills.
The film opens in Iraq, where Kyle is perched on a rooftop with a target in his sights, but just as he is about to pull the trigger, we flash back to the Texas of Kyle’s childhood. Here under the tutelage of his father he learned to shoot a rifle and to defend himself and his little brother against bullies at school. At the dinner table one evening Kyle’s father explains his philosophy to his two sons.
“There are three types of people in the word: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. Now some people prefer to believe that evil doesn’t exist in the world, and if it ever darkened their doorstep, they wouldn’t know how to protect themselves. Those are the sheep. And then you got predators. They use violence to prey on the weak. They’re the wolves. And then there are those who have been blessed with the gift of aggression and an overpowering need to protect the flock. These men are the rare breed that lives to confront the wolf. They are the sheepdogs. Now we’re not raising any sheep in this family, and I will whip your ass if you turn into a wolf. But we protect our own.”
He goes on to tell his older son that if someone threatens his little brother he has permission to step in and finish it. And if he finishes it, he will know who he is, and he will know his purpose.
Early in his adult years Kyle is a rodeo cowboy, but one evening after a competition he sees a news broadcast of the bombing at the U.S. embassy in 1988. The next day he enlists in the Navy to fulfill his obvious destiny of a sheepdog for the United States by becoming a Navy SEAL. He also meets and marries Taya Renae (Sienna Miller), and then shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he’s deployed to Iraq for his first tour of duty. From this point on the film chronicles his life as he and his wife attempt to find some semblance of normalcy in their lives despite his fierce dedication to his country.
Under Eastwood’s meticulous direction, “American Sniper” is a masterful representation of the incredible strain war imposes on its participants. The battle scenes are disturbingly realistic, and watching Kyle pick off people from various sniper nests often is uncomfortable. But equally disquieting is seeing the emotional agony Kyle endures as he’s constantly torn between his loyalty to duty and Taya’s failure to understand it.
In the film’s production notes both Eastwood and Miller commented on how important the relationship between Kyle and Taya is to the picture.
“There is a lot of intense action,” Eastwood said, “but the soul of the film and what drives the story are the relationships: between Chris and his brothers in arms and, in particular, between Chris and Taya, which is the most important relationship in the picture. Chris was obviously crazy about her, but, by the same token, he was committed to fulfilling the demands his country was placing upon him.”
Miller added: “At its essence, this is a human story between two people: one of whom is doing these extraordinary, unimaginable things so far from home and the other who is trying to hold her family together. Chris’s sense of duty was so immeasurably strong because of who he inherently was. He believed if he was home with his family, more people would die, and that’s a tremendous moral dilemma to be faced with. As hard as it was for her, I think Taya understood his plight and was trying to be patient and supportive of her husband, but that can be a hard thing to navigate when children are involved and, inside, you’re imploding. It made it a fascinating and poignant story to be part of and, having met Taya, I felt a responsibility to do it justice.”
Cooper’s portrayal of Kyle is nothing short of brilliant, and he’s certainly deserving of his Oscar nomination. Whether Kyle is sighting in on a target or attempting to be a good husband and father, Cooper makes us share in Kyle’s inner feelings and emotions. Does he have a heart, or is he nothing but a cold-blooded killer? These questions are answered in one incredibly poignant scene in which Kyle has just killed one of the enemy and a little boy comes along and ponders whether or not to pick up the dead man’s rifle. This scene alone is worthy of an Oscar nomination. In the production notes Cooper offered some interesting insight into the film and his role in it.
“In some ways, it’s a universal story about what most veterans have to go through — dealing with the seesaw of being in a war zone and then suddenly coming home to a ‘normal’ life. That was very moving to me. I liked the fact that it wasn’t as much of a war movie as it was a character study. And if you look at Clint Eastwood’s films, like ‘Unforgiven,’ ‘Gran Torino,’ ‘Letters from Iwo Jima,’ they are all complex character studies, albeit with very different backdrops. So he was absolutely the right director to tell this story in a very raw, truthful way.
“Chris was not a violent man — in fact, far from it — but when called upon, he did not shrink from his duty because he believed the cause is just. His heroism wasn’t just in the number of ‘kills’ he had in war; it was also in how he was ultimately able to confront the intangible wounds of war, not only within himself but on his family.”
In addition to some fine acting and to numerous amazingly choreographed war scenes, the film also captures the time era perfectly. I actually began watching this movie fully expecting to award it a perfect score, but two elements prevent that. In the first place, the film reveals Kyle’s ultimate fate (not going to give it away) via onscreen subtitles at the end instead of treating it in more detail, and I found that disappointing. But even worse than this is the use of a fake baby in the scenes where Kyle and Taya are handling their newborn child. This was laughable, and I’m really surprised that someone of Eastwood’s stature as a director would allow such a faux pas in one of his films.
Despite these items, however, “American Sniper” is an important and powerful film, and it earns the final score of a very respectable eight. And permit me one final thought about the controversy generated by the film. I think it in no way glorifies war or makes heroes of cold-blooded killers. I cannot verbalize the respect and admiration I have for the courageous men and women in the armed services, and sometimes the treatment they receive when they return home borders on the inhumane.
Here’s a brief excerpt from Kyle’s book:”…I have to tell you: it’s not the people you saved that you remember. It’s the ones you couldn’t save… . Those are the faces and situations that stay with you forever.”
Are these the words of a heartless killer? No. They are those of an American hero of unfathomable courage!