There’s a lot to say about American Sniper. Clint Eastwood’s latest war drama based on the story of real life legendary Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle just got itself nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Film and Best Actor (Bradley Cooper).
There’s so much to say about it that I just want to get this out of the way now:
American Sniper is a solid war movie in nearly every regard, with tense combat scenes and heartfelt, intimate drama on the homefront.
With that said, let’s talk about it.
Be advised, past this point I’m going to be dropping spoilers like Chris Kyle drops bodies.
Things start off tense, with Chris and a Marine Lance Corporal (my favorite character) on a rooftop in the heart of urban Fallujah city. Chris is providing overwatch for a platoon of Marines in the street, going to door to door clearing the city. Suddenly, he spots a woman in black handing a child a Russian anti-tank grenade and sending him off to throw it at the platoon of Marines. Chris has to make a decision.
We are then whisked away to his childhood in rural Texas. We learn through some dialog with his father that Chris is an all-American, patriotic, fiercely protective and morally unflinching character. After seeing Chris grow up a bit, join the Navy and marry his beautiful wife, we’re taken straight back to the action at hand.
Being forced to take action against the child and the woman, Chris kills them both with brutal accuracy through the scope of his M40A1. The Lance Corporal next to him chuckles in amusement, while Chris is visibly bothered. After a brief, poignant moment back in his hooch where he relays the events of the day with a fellow Navy SEAL, Chris presumably goes on to kill 158 more people with no regrets.
American Sniper is a movie that is presented to you in a classical American truth, that assumes it is correct. It doesn’t ask any questions, and it doesn’t invite you to ask any. There is a lot to be said about the Iraq war and a man who is famous for killing 160 (confirmed) people, but the film really chooses to say nothing about it at all. Instead of a morally complex and possibly even abrasive character that we know the real Chris Kyle was, Bradley Cooper plays him with a cuddly, teddy bear-like goodness that I’m not sure makes sense in the grand scheme of things.
The film has also been praised for its handling of the subject of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), but I actually found myself unsure of it. Let me explain why.
When Chris returns home from his first deployment (over a total of four), we see him exhibiting some subtle signs of PTSD. He’s intensely nervous at home, he’s always in combat mode even when he’s at rest, he can’t stop thinking about going back to Iraq.
His wife tells him, “even when you’re here, you’re not really here.”
This is a statement that no doubt resonates with anyone that has ever been to Iraq or Afghanistan. However, it’s the reason why Chris feels this way that didn’t sell it for me. When his wife tells him this, she’s not making a profound or greater statement of the experience of going to war, Chris is actually just mentally preoccupied with killing the film’s two main villains.
Yes, there are two main villains in the film.
One of them is an al Qaeda leader known as “The Butcher,” who not only kills but brutalizes his enemies (and even their children). The other is a Syrian sniper known for his prowess as an Olympic champion (a note the film really wants you to know, even showing a photo of him with a medal around his neck at the Olympics when we see him at his home).
PTSD and the experiences of being at war and coming home are a very complex subject, but the film does not treat them as such. Chris’ entire character conflict in the film is that he can’t let go of Iraq, that he can’t seem to “come home.”
That is, until he kills the two main bad guys.
Once he finishes off the Syrian sniper in a climactic, slow-motion, bullet-time kill shot, he gets on the SAT phone and dials up his wife (in the middle of a firefight). He tells her, “I’m ready to come home.”
The film briefly deals with his struggles after he comes home from his final deployment to Iraq, but it’s kind of unclear what his conflict is at this point. His wife convinces him to get help, so he does. He informs the VA counsellor that he never had a second thought about killing 160 people, but the two Navy SEALs that were killed during his deployments are what he struggles with. Fair enough, so he spends the remainder of the film helping disabled veterans to fulfill his instinctual need to save people.
As we know, this ultimately leads to his untimely death at the hands of Marine and fellow Iraq veteran Eddie Ray Routh in 2013.
A very tragic end to a very incredible man who survived so much.
As I mentioned in the beginning, all in all, this is a very good movie. I suppose I found myself mildly disappointed that this wasn’t the prophetic end-all Iraq movie that I was hoping it was going to be.
If you’re curious as to how it holds up on technicalities, I’m not a Navy SEAL so I actually don’t really know. Having been to Iraq twice myself (and Fallujah city), I can say that for the most part Iraq looked and felt like Iraq. Otherwise, everything seemed technically accurate and authentic, or at the very least nothing glaring stood out to me as an Iraq veteran.
There’s one scene that I really wish would have been expounded upon, and that is when he sees his biological brother again after being separated by branches (his brother is an infantry Marine, while Chris is a Navy SEAL).
While Chris is returning to Iraq for the third time, his brother is just leaving and they run into each other on the flightline. Chris is happy to be back, to finish the fight with The Butcher and the Syrian sniper. His brother is happy to be leaving.
Chris grabs him for a big hug, his brother seems despondent and tortured.
“Are you alright, brother?” Chris asks him.
“Yeah… fuck this place,” he replies with a look of someone who has seen too much.
The film never shows his brother again.
American Sniper is a solid Iraq war movie and you should go see it. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards, and rightfully so. Bradley Cooper gives one of the best performances of his career. In all honesty, I don’t think the film will win Best Picture, but I’d be surprised if it doesn’t get Bradley Cooper the Oscar for Best Actor.
I give this movie 4 out of 5 fucks.