The life of Chris Kyle, Navy SEAL and sniper extraordinaire, was a fascinating and complex one. A Texan good ole boy and semi-pro rodeo rider, Kyle enlisted in the Navy at an unusually old age (25) and went on to become a terrifyingly prolific sniper, doing four tours of duty in Iraq, while simultaneously dealing with the pressures of being a new father at home, and with the grim, ever-growing specter of post-traumatic stress. This is a man who killed over 160 people (confirmed), though that number in reality may be as high as 250. All he would do some days was simply lay in a room, and silently kill people who never saw it coming. And that, plus all of the other horrors of war, takes a toll on a person.
Kyle eventually wrote about his experiences after his honorable discharge (with assistance from Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice), and inevitably, the story was made into a film, directed by Clint Eastwood via a screenplay by Jason Hall (fun fact: Hall was once known for playing Devon MacLeish — the lead singer for The Dingoes Ate My Baby). Eastwood has been drifting in and out of relevancy in the last few years, and American Sniper, with Bradley Cooper as Kyle, is clearly poised to be a film that returns him to the pantheon of terrific directors that he clearly belongs in, given his history.
The problem is that American Sniper somehow manages to not be a particularly compelling film. This is not at all due to Cooper, who turns in a formidable performance as a man wrapped up in his own notions of patriotism and machismo, notions that keep him alive while abroad, but barely so when he returns home. Cooper’s Kyle is a big, burly, interesting character to watch — particularly when his edges start to fray — and he does a fine job of getting the audience to invest themselves in him. This is a good thing, because as far as acting goes, Cooper is pretty much the only game in town. American Sniper has a large cast, but for all intents and purposes, it may as well be a one-man show. Kyle has a few friends that he meets along the way, most notably Jake McDornan as fellow soldier Biggles, and a loving, yet scared and frustrated wife played by Sienna Miller (whose scenes are at times diminished by the use of a laughably fake baby that was distracting to the point of hilarity). But Cooper dominates the movie, and does so with a very solid, if unspectacular performance.
Ultimately, American Sniper starts off as a reasonably compelling film that doesn’t really go anywhere. It plays the same tapes, over and over. It makes no statement about the war itself other than to continually bray about the evilness of our enemies. This is particularly overdone given that Kyle and friends routinely refer to the Iraqis as “savages,” and Eastwood seemingly delights in showing us how evil they are as well, going so far as to ghoulishly and excessively show an insurgent using a power drill on a young boy. It touches upon Kyle’s struggles with PTSD only by showing him being despondent and sluggish when he returns home between tours. Other than that, it’s a seemingly endless series of sand-smothered gun battles interspersed with other soldiers telling Kyle how amazing he is. It does this over and over again, without ever seeming to have much purpose, and without much deviation from that cycle. There is little nuance or subtlety to be found, and after 90 minutes of these interminably jingoistic, fetishistically violent scenarios, it all starts to blur together, unfocused and purposeless.
War is a terrible thing, even when it is waged for the best of reasons, and soldiers are often the best and bravest of men, forced to commit terrible acts. We know this, and we’ve seen this. Chris Kyle led a strange and brutal and death-defying life (even if some of his book is rather contentious), and dealt with some very real and very tragic personal demons as a consequence of that life. He is undoubtedly a hero, and that part is hammered home repeatedly. He is unquestionably someone to be admired, and that point is beaten into us as well. But he was also a human being, who suffered as a result of his actions, however laudable they may have been, and that part is handled with all the sincerity of a Michael Bay film. To wrap up his entire conflict — arguably the part that makes us empathize with him the most — in a fifteen minute, rose-colored conclusion ultimately feels like a disservice to those struggles, and makes the movie less about a man and more about an action hero. Eastwood’s depictions of the horrors of the Iraq war are grueling and engrossing, no doubt, and his lavish praise of Kyle’s endeavors is certainly apparent. And Cooper gives a rock-steady performance. I just wish that both Eastwood and his star had spent less time telling us about the justness of our cause and how righteous America is, and instead given us a better chance to know the man behind the hero.