American Sniper is the latest film from legendary director (and actor) Clint Eastwood. Starring Bradley Cooper, it is the story of former Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, who is credited with being the deadliest sniper in US military history, having 160 confirmed kills and likely twice that many in total, based on his book of the same name. He was given the nickname “The Legend.”
Having just finished Kyle’s book a few days before seeing the film, I will be drawing on both for this review.
One thing up front: I am an Army veteran with two deployments to Iraq. I gave up years of my life, time with my family and loved ones, to serve my country. So some of the recent controversy, with attacks on the late Chris Kyle, mostly by various members of Hollywood and the media who know nothing of what transpires in the field, tends to rub me the wrong way.
OK, that’s out of the way. On to the film.
American Sniper is outstanding. Technically, it is impressive. I can’t say that I’ve ever seen a movie that feels more accurate, with regards to what it was like over there. I never fired my weapon in battle, and wasn’t involved with patrols, so I can’t speak to those aspects, but as far as what it looked like, and how it “felt” when I was in Baghdad, Eastwood nailed it. One particularly notable scene was during a sandstorm: I’ve never seen anything like that on film. It’s difficult for me to describe, but the effect of the sandstorm overtaking you, and the confusion and disorientation, was expertly handled.
The film follows Kyle through SEAL training, and marriage to his wife Taya, then through his four deployments to Iraq. At this point, it becomes a sort of dual hunt between Kyle and an insurgent sniper known as “Mustafa.” This was a dramatic element added to the film by the screenwriter, as Kyle never had any engagements with Mustafa. He had a fearsome reputation, but Kyle didn’t take him out; Mustafa is thought to have been killed later, but he is only mentioned in passing in the book.
Between the deployments, and after, we get a glimpse of Chris at home. He has missed years of his childrens’ lives, his relationship with his wife is falling apart. The film handles these expertly; I finally felt that someone is showing what this is like for the first time, that maybe people will see what it’s like for those who have sacrificed so much.
One scene, both in the book and the film, had me in tears. Chris is home, getting an oil change, and someone, a veteran, recognizes him, thanking him for saving them. He gets nervous, uncomfortable speaking of it, saying “you guys saved us plenty of times,” and ending the conversation.
Kyle, due to his position, could have stayed in relatively safe fighting positions, but often volunteered to go on missions clearing buildings with the door kickers, in hopes of imparting some of his knowledge, but also to protect “his guys,” as he called the troops he worked with. His job was to kill enemies who were attempting to kill Americans, to protect his brothers in arms. He did his job exceedingly well. Kyle put his life on the lines on multiple occasions. Again and again.
Another area in which this film stands out is by showing the brutal tactics of our nations enemies. Often films try to whitewash this, blaming Americans for combat deaths. In American Sniper, we see torture rooms, a psychopath enforcer using a power drill to maim and murder, and more. Some have complained about Kyle referring to the perpetrators of these monstrosities as “savages.” I’m not sure how else one could interpret their actions.
When he finally returned home from war, in addition to starting a successful company, Kyle spent time with veterans and wounded warriors, taking them hunting and shooting, helping them to adjust back to civilian life. One day, he was killed by a disturbed veteran he was trying to help.
One complaint some have had is that the film glamorizes killing and war. I can only say that no one who has actually seen the movie could honestly make that claim, so they can’t be honestly making the claim. War is terrible, violent, and brutal, and American Sniper shows that. It is masterful in its portrayal. But it certainly doesn't glamorize it.
Bradley Cooper completely transformed himself to play the role of Chris Kyle, whom he has described in interviews as “a bear.” His mannerisms and vocalizations are perfect throughout. Cooper was also a producer on the film, working with Eastwood and others to put the entire project together. It was very important to them that they do a good job bringing the story to the screen, and by all accounts of Kyle’s family and friends, they did an excellent job. Kyle was not at all perfect; he placed his country above his family, in terms of priority, and they all suffered for it. But eventually, he came home, and worked on rebuilding his life.
American Sniper is an outstanding film. The battle sequences are unparalleled. But more than this, I feel that an even more important contribution is showing the difficulties soldiers face upon their return home from combat zones. As I said above, I saw no significant action, apart from some rocket propelled grenades being fired into my base. Even so, I have had difficulty adjusting to life at home. I missed my youngest child’s first three birthdays, and it took years to rebuild that relationship. I have faced the strange feeling that being in Iraq, doing my actual job, is much preferable to being home. American Sniper deals with all of this authentically.
I cannot recommend this film highly enough. However, I probably don't have to, because it is the highest grossing January film opening in history, as well as Clint Eastwood’s highest opening ever.
Addendum: Early in the film, we see Kyle being scolded by his father for fighting. When it is revealed that he was protecting his younger brother from a bully, his father commends him, referring to him as a sheepdog. Retired Army Colonel Dave Grossman explained the concept like this:
"If you have no capacity for violence then you are a healthy productive citizen, a sheep. If you have a capacity for violence and no empathy for your fellow citizens, then you have defined an aggressive sociopath, a wolf. But if you have a capacity for violence, and a deep love for your fellow citizens? What do you have then? A sheepdog, a warrior, someone who is walking in the hero's path. Someone who can walk into the heart of darkness, into the universal human phobia, and walk out unscathed...
"The sheep generally do not like the sheepdog. He looks a lot like the wolf. He has fangs and the capacity for violence. The difference, though, is that the sheepdog must not, can not, and will not ever harm the sheep. Any sheepdog who intentionally harms the lowliest little lamb will be punished and removed. The world cannot work any other way, at least not in a representative democracy or a republic such as ours.
"Still, the sheepdog disturbs the sheep. He is a constant reminder that there are wolves in the land. They would prefer that he didn't tell them where to go, or give them traffic tickets, or stand at the ready in our airports in camouflage fatigues holding an M-16. The sheep would much rather have the sheepdog cash in his fangs, spray paint himself white, and go 'baa.'
"Until the wolf shows up. Then the entire flock tries desperately to hide behind one lonely sheepdog."
Jack Coleman concludes with this thought:
"Those of us turning out for American Sniper are doing so, on some level, to thank the sheepdogs ... "
From all of us at ZRock'R- no matter our opinion of the film individually, we are all in agreement that our brave soldiers in the field, the sky and on the sea do what they do so that we can do what we do and remain free. It is because of this we would like to say Thank You to Brad and to all who have served this country and who are still doing so. Your sacrifices in the name of freedom do not go un-noticed or unappreciated, no matter what our politics or social moralities may be. - SL