I hadn’t heard of Chris Kyle until Clint Eastwood decided to make a movie about America’s most lethal sniper, based on his 2012 book “American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History.” It isn’t difficult to understand why, after following some of the facts regarding his overseas tours — 160 confirmed kills over four tours in the Iraq War and the nickname “Devil of Ramadi” by Iraqi insurgents. It was only a matter of time before a Hollywood studio decided to release a film revolving around the war veteran, and his untimely demise in 2013 in a shooting range only helped expedite the process.
Eastwood’s film is centered on Kyle’s duties across his four Iraq tours, taking us from his transformation from an aspiring cowboy to a U.S. Navy SEAL sniper. We are shown scenes from his upbringing, where his father takes him on hunting expeditions and imparts knowledge regarding the harsh realities of the world, all of this acting as premonitions, hinting at a greater calling in life for our lead character.
The beginning of the film does tend to play out in a familiar manner. Scenes of Bradley Cooper as Kyle undergoing rather strenuous training routines with the usual development of a sense of camaraderie among the soldiers-in-waiting. Then we place a cue for a beautiful girl named Taya (Sienna Miller) to meet our lead in a bar, and they naturally get hitched right before his deployment to Iraq. I also noticed similarities with another film centered on the Iraq War, “The Hurt Locker.” Both films tend to chronicle the journeys of our leads from one tour or cycle to the next, developing a rather exhausting routine for our characters yet managing to raise the stakes and tension along each successive tour.
With “American Sniper,” however, I couldn’t stop feeling like this was a superhero movie, based on the pre-existing media coverage of our sniper as a legend and hero, a point that is bolstered in the movie through his friends and comrades in combat, who decide to call him “Legend.” His skills on the battlefield inspire his fellow mates and give them a sense of security as he picks out potential enemies from afar. In times of danger, every bullet conveniently misses him by an inch or two, giving him an aura of invincibility. This is Superman on the battlefield without a weakness to kryptonite.
A little while later, Kyle and his crew develop their own insignia, marked on their uniforms and vehicles. Batman had his Bat Signal, and Chris Kyle had an ominous skull that sent a clear message to his enemies. What’s more, he gets his own archnemesis in the form of a rival sniper, who happens to have been an Olympic gold medalist in sharpshooting. The underlying heroism plot line coupled with the archrival is what invigorates one tour from the next, as we’re left to find out if Kyle finally gets his man.
The acting and directing in the movie were unequivocally well-executed. Cooper truly embodied Kyle by putting on 40 pounds and also developing a Texan drawl — and we mustn’t forget his countless hours of extensive rifle training. Sienna Miller does her best in her role as Kyle’s wife, playing the part of a concerned woman waiting for the safe arrival of her husband back home.
Eastwood’s direction and the actors’ efforts tended to complement each other effectively. When Kyle is about to take out a target, the audience is naturally given the view point of the sniper’s scope, and at that moment, the audience is engulfed by the target and Cooper’s breathing. The breathing alone conveys an enormity of emotion, especially when Kyle has to kill people in morally dubious circumstances. Even a prolonged still shot focusing on a downed target conveys a depth of meaning, displaying that pulling the trigger was by no means an easy feat.
The film will generate a great deal of controversy, as it has already done since its release Jan. 16, due to people interpreting various political statements from the motion picture as they see fit. The usual concerns have been about glorifying the war and its portrayal of the Arab World. I saw it more as a character study focusing on how one man looked at the world, since it is after all based on an autobiographical work. I’d rather look at it as a story about a man who managed to hold on to his ideals and principles through the strain of war, which has done so much to change those of others. I’ll leave the rest to the political pundits.