“American Sniper” is based on the best seller by Chris Kyle which is the autobiography of the “most lethal sniper in U.S. Military History”. Kyle served four tours in Iraq from 2003-2009 and had 160 confirmed kills. The movie was directed by Clint Eastwood after Steven Spielberg considered doing it. The Iraq scenes were filmed in Morocco and if you look carefully you will recognize a setting used in “Black Hawk Down”. The movie is doing well at the box office and has received six Academy Award nominations: Best Picture (but not director), Actor, Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing. Bradley Cooper gained forty pounds for his role as Kyle by consuming 8,000 calories a day.
The movie opens with the beefy hunk on sniper overlook from a roof top as a Marine patrol moves through the rubble of an Iraqi town. He has to make a decision as a mother and her son approach the patrol with what looks like a Russian grenade. Suddenly we flash back to Kyle as a child being preached to by his father. Mr. Kyle tells his son there are three types of men: the sheep, the wolves, and the sheep dogs. Be a sheep dog and protect the sheep. It takes a while for this to kick in as Kyle became a rodeo rider until a cuckolding and the embassy bombings in Africa causes him to enlist in the Navy SEALs. SEAL training montage. Their drill instructors are as taunt-creative as some of their best cinematic brethren. Kyle meets his future wife Taya (Sienna Miller) in a bar and they would have lived happily ever after except for 9/11 which gives him the chance to do that sheep dog thing. The movie now returns to the opening scene and we get to find out whether he shot the kid and mom.
The rest of the film covers Kyle’s four tours and his awkward interludes at home. Taya has two kids and would prefer he stay home and take care of his own sheep. She is the classic whiny military wife who hates her country apparently. Kyle is the classic war movie husband who lives by the war movie maxim: bros before hoes. In the Iraq scenes, we are made aware that Kyle is very good at his craft and soon his comrades are calling him “The Legend”. Every white hat needs a black hat and Kyle gets his in an Iraqi sniper referred to as “Mustafa”. Cue the sniper duel as every sniper movie fan knows that two is better than one. A movie made by an arch-conservative also needs a hissable villain to bring a face to the ‘’savages”, as the Iraqi insurgents are called. Kyle and his team of not Bradley Coopers are tasked to eliminate Al Zarkawi’s second in command “the Butcher”. He may be second in command, but he is first in torturing. The Butcher’s weapon of choice is a power drill! (And all we did was water-boarding.) The cat and mouse with the Butcher and the sniper duel coincide. Along the way, a SEAL with little knowledge of war movie clichés talks about the ring he has bought for his impending proposal. Guess who gets shot? The movie builds to an Alamo reenactment in a sand storm. “The fog of war” becomes “the sand storm of war”. Credit Eastwood with a unique take on the “last stand” trope.
“American Sniper” is well made entertainment for the masses. Eastwood uses his usual spare story-telling style and the movie has an Old School feel to it. When the Kyle’s get frisky, they go in the bedroom and close the door behind them. The movie is also unabashedly patriotic and supportive of the war in Iraq. Eastwood inserts some support for religion (our religion) although he does not bludgeon us with it. The cinematography is no frills with none of the hand held frenetics that mark most modern war films. The sniper kills are visceral, but Eastwood does not indulge in sniper porn like most in the sniper subgenre. We only see a few of Kyle’s 160 kills. The movie was not made for 14 year old boys. But unfortunately, it was made for main stream adults. This means that it oversimplifies the themes for popular consumption. Kyle chooses country over family, but eventually gets both. Every return home develops the PTSD theme, but Kyle’s recovery is much too pat. This does a disservice to the men who Kyle helped after he gave up the game.
The movie is very well acted by the cast of Bradley Cooper. I think there were some other actors in the movie. There must have been. To give you an idea of how Cooper dominates the movie and no one else is able to develop, there is an early scene that proposes that Kyle overlook an operation. When the soldiers are going to go out of sight, Kyle (Cooper) disobeys orders and leads the ingress and personally interrogates the suspect and gets him to collaborate. And by the way, why waste screen time on Kyle having a spotter to bond with? The movie has virtually no scenes without Cooper in them. I wonder why so many women are going see a war movie?
The movie has given a big boost to the sales of the book. This is partly I would think due to the fact that people like me come out of the theater wondering whether some of the key plot points are bull shit. I plan to read the book and do a “History or Hollywood” post on it in the future, but for now I will say that it is fairly accurate. Some of the things I thought were very likely Hollywood turned out to be artistic license. For instance, the reason for his enlistment was different. There was no boy involved in the Russian grenade incident. There was a Butcher type figure in Iraq, but Kyle was not involved in a hunt for him. Needless to say, there was no sniper duel. I questioned the ability of a serviceman in Iraq to call his wife while on a mission and found that he actually did call his wife while waiting for targets and once was interrupted, resulting in her listening to the noises of a fire fight and it was a traumatic experience as depicted in the movie. However, the call where he tells her he is coming home never occurred. On a minor note (but symbolic of how hero movies work), the movie ups the insurgent bounty on Kyle to $180,000 compared to the actual unimpressive $20,000 for any sniper. On the other hand, the movie does get some things right. This is especially true of the marriage dynamics and the PTSD (but not the resolution).
I may have come off too harsh on a war movie that is competently done and tells the story of a true American hero. It advances its themes well and the combat scenes are among the best in recent war films. They are edge of the seat and nicely unpredictable. Cooper deserved the Oscar nomination and the movie should be titled “Bradley Cooper’s American Sniper”. Considering the paucity of war movies, it is a good addition to the genre. It makes a good companion to “Lone Survivor” and shows that there are some good movies being made about our two most recent wars. Maybe some people will become aware that we did fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.
GRADE = B