It was released in December, but American Sniper just set a box office record for January - it made $90.2 million this weekend, according to Variety. Nominated for a handful of Academy Awards, Clint Eastwood’s latest look at humanizing our heroes and death continues is this unflinching bio of decorated Navy SEAL Chris Kyle.
Eastwood, and actor Bradley Cooper, are being criticized that the film celebrates the life of a killer, a knock that seems to be a bit of a headline grab and misplaced.
The movie does not attempt to canonize Kyle, or the American military, but does its best to serve a plate of honesty about the whole thing from Kyle (with his consent) to the American military in Iraq to the vets who come home severely wounded, and try to rebuild their lives after seeing combat.
Personally, his story had attracted me after I attended his memorial service at Cowboys Stadium in 2013. It was the saddest event I have ever covered, and caused me on more than one occasion to cry. Before then, I had only known him by name, and did not know the story beyond the title of America’s Deadliest Sniper. During service I learned a little bit about the man, the SEAL the friend, the dad and the husband. The movie attempts to show, and explain, all of them.
The story: Many viewers are familiar with the life of Kyle, the most decorated sniper in American history, who has reportedly more than 160 confirmed kills in combat. Like most bios, the movie races through his life from his childhood in Texas to his attempt at being a cowboy and then his decision to join the military. Along the way he meets his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), survives SEAL training, gets married, goes off to the war in Iraq, becomes a dad, and then works with veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The people: The movie focuses almost exclusively on Kyle’s four tours in Iraq, and his often strained marriage. It is not just the prolonged absences that cause the problems, but when these guys return home they are scarred, and often mad at our first-world problems while their friends are off fighting a war that so often we pay no attention to on a daily basis. An underlying message of the film is the reality that what so many of these vets hate about combat is the same thing that keeps pulling them back in.
Cooper is physically and emotionally convincing as the SEAL with a gift for hitting targets at great distances, and an ability to reach Taya despite the many miles between them that often existed in their relationship. There is a good chemistry between the two that projects love and loyalty.
Equally convincing is Kyle’s belief in the mission, and to be there to help in the fight, which is why he so often returned.
Battle Scenes: “Sniper” contains some of the more intense battle scenes in recent memory. It’s deafening, explosive, and uncomfortably intimate. Kyle’s decision to shoot or not when he has a target is not as simple as the squeeze of a finger, especially when the subject is a little kid. There is tension, torture, and fear. Kyle’s prolonged pursuit of one particular Iraqi sniper serves as a thread for most of the movie.
Eastwood’s transformation: In the beginning of his long career in Hollywood, few actors were as associated with violence and tough-guy gun play as Clint Eastwood. His characters easily shot the bad guys while giving no pause to the consequences. In his later years, mostly as a director, he has deliberately examined at the role of violence, and heroism, in our society.
In the Academy Award-winning “Unforgiven”, he looked closely at the idea of “blowing a guy away” is not as easy as it was portrayed, and it had lasting effects on the man who pulled the trigger, even in the Old West.
In “Flags of Our Fathers”, he looked into the realities of anointed heroism and hero-worship thrust on regular people.
In “Sniper”, Eastwood examines the belief that many vets share about their role in American values, and the role of the U.S. military in Iraq. Kyle, as many vets then and now, believed he was making a difference and that it was his duty to be there. But as the movie goes on so too does the feeling that many vets had that the price was too high.
There is one scene in the film where Kyle comes across his younger brother on a Tarmac in Iraq; his brother was in the military, and he is no longer the person we saw earlier in the film. He is bitter, sad, and just wants to go home.
Not hero worship or anti-war: This is based on Kyle’s best-selling book, and he collaborated with Cooper, who served as a producer, on the movie before his death. Needless to say, the movie is pro-Kyle, but it does not put him on a pedestal. He was not some Super Dad or Super Husband, and he was not easy to deal with upon his return home from any of his tours. But he was good at his job, and it makes no apologies for it.
Should you see it: Yes. The movie is about Chris Kyle, but it’s also about many others who come home from war eternally altered. This movie will linger in your head for a while.