Perhaps at another time, I will address the swirl of controversy and contention surrounding American Sniper. At the moment, I will say that I think the criticism surrounding American Sniper is not about the film itself but about how one feels about what American Sniper represents to the viewer. The slings and arrows flung at the film revolve around war, about American actions in Iraq, about American power and influence in any realm, about how one perceives the military and how one perceives the audience's reaction. For now, let us discuss the film, which is an expertly filmed by Clint Eastwood, extraordinarily acted film that is much deeper and more introspective than either its supporters or detractors are able to admit.
Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) has been drifting a bit for many years. He has wanted to be a cowboy, but the rodeo circuit has not given him much happiness or stability in his life. After seeing the attacks on the embassies in Africa, he decides he wants to serve his country by enlisting. Despite being 30 at this point he makes it through the grilling SEAL training. He also finds Taya (Sienna Miller), an attractive girl in a bar. She at first isn't interested in another soldier hitting on her, particularly a SEAL and a redneck to boot. "I'm not a redneck. I'm a Texan ma'am," he corrects her. Eventually, they do marry but their happiness is short-lived, as they find themselves engulfed in the post-9/11 world, and Chris is deployed for four tours in Iraq.
While there, Chris becomes "Legend", for his ability to take out targets with deadly accuracy. We see some of the difficult choices Kyle has to make, right from the start of American Sniper. We open with an impossible choice. He sees through his scope that an Iraqi boy has a grenade handed to him by his mother, and he is approaching the troops. He can either kill the boy or let the child kill his 'brothers'. Eventually, we do go back to this opening, where he does what he has to do.
Throughout each tour the Kyles struggle through life. Taya has two children, and while Chris tries to be a good father and husband he stubbornly refuses to recognize he could have PTSD. His blood pressure of 170/110 is not a warning sign to him. He needs to be the sheepdog to his brothers, particularly against The Butcher (Mido Hamada), a Syrian sniper in Iraq just as deadly as Kyle. Kyle himself has been targeted for assassination by the jihadists who have overrun Iraq in the chaos post-invasion. Eventually, while Kyle's own war against The Butcher comes to a successful conclusion in a thrilling and tense action sequence, this time his extremely narrow escape from the marauding enemy is one too much for him. He tells Taya he is finally ready to come home.
Still, the PTSD Kyle won't acknowledge has to be addressed. Thanks to a VA psychiatrist, Kyle finds there are other ways of 'saving' his fellow troops. He soon starts working with wounded veterans and helping them adjust to civilian life. He achieves a certain happiness and stability, a respite from his years of war. Sadly, he was killed by one of those he was trying to help on February 2, 2013, shot at close range.
Let me say this off the bat: American Sniper is not a political film. It does not take sides on the debate on the Iraq Intervention or on war in general. American Sniper is not a glorification of war, but it is not an anti-war film. If it were a pro-war film, American Sniper would only present Kyle's achievements on screen and clean up the more morally ambiguous aspects. If it were an anti-war film, it would present Kyle as something of a bloodthirsty lunatic killing innocent women and children with glee. American Sniper does neither. Instead, it wrestles with those questions and won't give us answers.
Kyle knows that the choice he has to make is an extremely difficult one. He has a child and knows that he might have to kill someone so young. He also knows that if he allows the child to live, it will be his brothers who will die. It is not an easy decision, and Kyle knows it. Later on, there's another scene where a child picks up a rocket launcher, and Eastwood keeps the tension ramped up as the child struggles with it while unbeknown to him, Kyle struggles with his own. When the boy finally opts to drop it and run, the relief for both the audience and Kyle is complete.
American Sniper is a film that simply puts us there and presents things as they were, not as we would have liked them to be. The enemy to Kyle is clearly defined, and we do see acts of brutality by people like The Butcher and those who work with him and Al-Qaeda in Iraq. We also see that the Iraqis are also caught between difficult if not impossible positions: collaborationists or victims of AQI. This makes American Sniper a film that is more than just either cheerleading or condemning the actions of one man or the military. Instead, it is a film that gives us the POV of those doing the fighting, the dying, and the waiting at home and lets us decide.
The final combat scene, from when Kyle spots the Butcher and decides on an extremely risky shot to their flight to safety as a sandstorm adds to the chaos, is one of the most gripping moments in the film. Eastwood is a master of building tension slowly and then unleashing it in a torrent, and here we have another example of a particularly gripping moment that leaves the viewer on the edge.
However, Eastwood now deserves credit for the smaller, gentler scenes. At the funeral of both a fellow SEAL and Kyle's (the second via news footage), there were people in tears. Not being a particularly emotional person, I was moved but not enough to tears. However, seeing my brother/best friend Gabe shedding tears at these moments showed me the great power American Sniper has.
The performances are also excellent. Bradley Cooper has to my mind finally silenced all critics of him not being an actor, just a pretty face. Yes, he's done bad films badly, but here, he makes Kyle a fully-rounded figure, a complete and authentic man. I never saw Bradley Cooper. I saw Chris Kyle (which I couldn't say about another highly-touted performance he is up against for Best Actor). He doesn't make Kyle either a buffoon or mindless grunt or a stoic noble warrior. This was a man with flaws, some of his own making, some not. However, he was also a complex man: who loved his family but who also pushed them away. He was a man who loved his brothers at arms but didn't understand why his own literal brother, who was also serving, didn't want to go back to Iraq.
A big surprise is Miller as Taya. Perhaps going from blonde to brunette made her an actual actress, for prior to American Sniper she was what people thought of Cooper: a pretty face with nothing to show for it. Here, Miller is a knockout: a woman not impressed by SEALs, but one who also knows her husband is struggling in ways different from her own, burdened by raising a family on her own while being with a man she loves yet is outside of.
If American Sniper has a flaw, it's the infamous fake baby. There were chuckles in the audience when it came on-screen, and even Gabe commented on how obvious it was. Let's get over it and give Cooper and Miller credit for doing their best to make it believable...even if it was painfully clear it was not a real baby. I think that will be remembered as a mere flaw, a curious one at that, but minor compared to what American Sniper really accomplished: a war film that neither glories or condemns it, a portrait of a man who was what he appeared to be, flaws and all.
American Sniper is in many ways, a love letter to both the veterans and their spouses who have their own battle to endure. Kyle's PTSD, both his refusal to acknowledge it and his work to help others with it, is a major point of the film. With Taya, we see the toll that those married to those who serve takes on them.
People will see American Sniper through the prism of their own worldview, but I'm not here to judge on whether it fits my own worldview. I'm here to talk about the film itself, and on every level, American Sniper is an extraordinary achievement.