As a war film, “American Sniper” is gritty and thought-provoking as steadily maintaining its unadorned and respectful attitude to its subject. While it is uncomfortable to watch at times due to its hero’s narrow viewpoint, the story feels direct and earnest under its thoughtful direction, and the movie slowly reveals itself as an intense drama about the horror of war and its long shadow on its hero and others, which, as reflected by its ending, he could never get away from even in the end.
The movie is based on the life of Chris Kyle, a real-life US Navy SEAL sniper who was called “Legend” by American soldiers and was also nicknamed “Devil of Ramandi” by Iraqi insurgents as serving his four tours during the Iraq War. On the official records, he killed at least 160 men during his missions, and that reputation made him into one of No.1 targets by his enemies, who put a heavy bounty on his head while he was on duty.
As shown during the scenes depicting his early life, Kyle was bound to become a tough guy with the sense of duty and dedication. Born into a conservative family in Texas, he began to learn shooting through his father even when he was very young, and we also see his stern father’s influence on him especially during a family meal scene in which his father emphasizes to young Kyle and Kyle’s little brother on what kind of people they must grow to become.
After pursuing a rodeo rider career for a while, Kyle, played by Bradley Cooper in a bulkier appearance, decides to join the Army in 1998 after watching the TV news on the US embassy building bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. He goes through a physically demanding training to become a US Navy SEAL, and he also happen to meet Taya Renae (Sienna Miller) in the meantime. When Kyle and Taya come across each other at a bar where he happen to spend some free time with other trainees, they are quickly drawn to each other despite their first awkward minutes, and then they get married not long after 9/11
However, their wedding day is interrupted by the news of the deployment of him and his fellow soldiers to Iraq. As soon as he and others arrive in Iraq, Kyle shows his peerless skill as an expert marksman, and he receives more respect and gratitude from other soldiers as he continues to protect them during their dangerous missions on the barren streets where they can be suddenly attacked at any point if they are not very careful.
There are a number of tense sequences reminiscent of other Iraq War films such as Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” (2008), and the director Clint Eastwood skillfully handles them with an ample amount of suspense for us. At one point, Kyle must think and act quickly when some local woman and her little son come into his range with a strong possibility of ambush, and it becomes very clear to us what may happen if he is not careful in his judgment. It later turns out that there is an equally skillful sniper on the enemy’s side, and he and Kyle become more aware of each other as their paths are crossed over several times, and Kyle accordingly becomes more determined to defeat his opponent (I must tell you that this sniper character is a nearly fictional one for a story arc in Jason Hall’s screenplay, which is based on the book written by Chris Kyle and his co-authors Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice).
Kyle often calls local people ‘savages’, and how bluntly he and other soldiers handle local people is unpleasant to watch, but we also observe Kyle and other soldiers’ gloomy situation getting worse every day with more threats and dangers. The movie does not look away from the savageries fueled by war, and there are a couple of gut-wrenching moments which chillingly exemplify how human beings can be cruel and ruthless to others during war.
Watching his comrades emotionally or physically affected by the war, Kyle tries to look all right in front of his family while he is at home between his tours, but the symptoms of his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) become more evident whenever he returns to his homeland, and that consequently generates the distance between him and his wife and children. While always glad to see her husband coming back alive from Iraq, Taya becomes more frustrated with the visible changes inside a man she loves, and Chris finds himself increasingly awkward at his comfortable home which is completely different from a dangerous world he survived through. Like the hero of “The Hurt Locker”, he becomes more accustomed to the danger in Iraq than the comfort at his home, and he wants to go back to the war even though he may be killed because of that.
While he stumbled in his previous film “Jersey Boys”, Eastwood finds a story more suitable for him in “American Sniper”, and his unobtrusive approach to Hall’s screenplay compensates for several questionable aspects in the screenplay. Some scenes in the film feel a little too blatant, but Eastwood stays on a neutral mode while letting the story to speak for itself through its hero’s viewpoint, and he wisely does not push emotions to us as showing Kyle’s struggles with PTSD and the resulting conflicts between him and his family.
Effective in his against-the-type role, Bradley Cooper, who also produced the film, is convincingly transformed into his character through lots of efforts (besides military training, he also bulked up his body around 40 pounds (18-kg)), and his gritty drama performance ably carries the film as its big hurt locker. His co-star Sienna Miller, who incidentally appeared as another real-life character’s wife in “Foxcatcher” (2014), brings life to what could have been a thankless role, and she does far more than holding the phone during her phone conversation scenes with Cooper.
Probably because I am a non-American audience, I have some reserved feelings toward “American Sniper”, but I also admire its thoughtful storytelling and its strong points including the solid performances by Cooper and Miller. I got an impression during my viewing that I would disagree a lot on many things with Chris Kyle, but I could sense Eastwood’s respect toward his hero, and I understand that while appreciating the humble gesture at the end of the film.