Only a select few members of society will ever understand what it feels like to take a human life in the heat of battle, whether it be avenging a fallen comrade or protecting your military family, but American Sniper does its best to convey the emotional toll that each death takes on the triggerman. We’ve seen cinematic war stories that focus solely on running and gunning – an almost brutish glorification of violence in the name of patriotism – but that’s not the story of Chris Kyle. American Sniper is about a war-addict’s struggle to assimilate back into reality after letting the souls of many repeatedly drag him into the chaos of war for another masochistic tour, leaving behind a tortured wife, fatherless children, and a life more ordinary just to ensure his squad would be safe under his famous overwatch.
Bradley Cooper puts himself inside the mind of Navy Seal Chris Kyle, who’s historically known as one of the most lethal snipers in U.S. military history thanks to 160 confirmed kills – and another 100 more probable kills. Kyle hated being on overwatch duty because he could only protect his fellow Seals from threats in the open, but as his statistics mounted, his mythical status started making its away about Iraq. After an equally deadly enemy sniper makes his presence known, getting inside the mind of Kyle thanks to equally skilled shooting, the American shooter makes it his mission to eliminate the Olympic-caliber threat (Sammy Sheik). Each tour brings him away from his growing family back home though, turning his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) into an unraveling spool of emotions. The deadly sniper realizes he’ll eventually have to walk away from the war, but with each new deployment, the question of “when” becomes larger and larger – if death doesn’t come first, that is.
American Sniper couldn’t have come at a better time for director Clint Eastwood, because he had a bit of explaining to do after Jersey Boys. Back once again is the dead-eyed filmmaker capable of recreating war’s emotional depravity, unflinching when it comes to child soldiers, impactful deaths, and a barbaric intensity that doesn’t paint either side’s soldiers as Hollywood action stars. There’s a heavy emphasis on tactical movements and proper protocol, yet there’s also a newer point-of-view while watching the action from Kyle’s safer vantage points. Eastwood’s passionate patriotism pushes through each scene with confidence, as the filmmaker keeps audiences on their toes whenever Kyle’s squad finds themselves marching through dusty Iraqi cities.
Then again, there are an abundance of visual eye-sores that seem almost unforgivable in light of Hollywood’s ability to recreate anything on screen with realism, specifically mentioning some facepalm-worthy CGI blood and the now-famous robotic baby. Coming from a true horror geek who’s seen everything from the slimiest practicals to the most pixelated blood splatters ever, nothing takes you out of the moment more than a bright, glossy, obnoxiously highlighted bullet hole that doesn’t even interact with the dirty, grimy environment. Despite what studios believe and money dictates, all problems can’t be solved during post-production. Sure, American Sniper is about militaristic mentalities and dramatically exposing a warrior’s inability to cope with reality, but a cinematic distraction is still a distraction, and it unfairly undermines an actor’s hypnotic powers.
Blunders aside, Bradley Cooper’s transformation into a charming Southern militant shows the actor in a much beefier, hardened state. There’s a grizzled nature that emotes pain with each clenching of the trigger, as the deaths visibly pile upon Kyle’s body like a growing weight that he’d rather shoulder than pass off. As citizens who value our lives, we can’t possibly comprehend what keeps bringing the lucky soldier back into battle, just to cheat Death one more time, but Cooper does his best to convey the psychological anguish that’s buried deep beneath a layer of avoidance, suppressed grief, and self denial.
It becomes easy to tell that he loves Taya very much, and he cares deeply for his children, yet when war calls, Kyle runs back without hesitation. Cooper exposes not only the pain he inflicts upon the enemy, and the sacrifices he makes in the name of rousing patriotism, but the unfortunate side-effects that are smuggled back from enemy territory – murky thoughts that soldiers might not even detect until normality attempts to take hold.
American Sniper is a love letter to a worthy man, and an eye-opener for those unfamiliar with war’s all-encompassing nature – but it doesn’t come without faults. It’s a good movie that could have been something great given more attention to detail and possibly a little less blind “oorah” siding, but where Unbroken glossed over many interesting aspects of its true source material, Eastwood and writer Jason Hall find an amicable balance between pulse-pounding bouts of war and poignant commentaries on a soldier’s decompression period.
War might be hell, but what happens when the chaos becomes more familiar than a backyard BBQ with family and friends? That’s the horrifying truth that so many unsung heroes battle with on a daily basis, and also what bolsters Chris Kyle’s story with even more power – which makes for an especially sad ending as the credits roll. More comparable to The Hurt Locker than Black Hawk Down, Eastwood explores not only the physical hardships of war, but the emotional baggage that leads soldiers down a path no one should travel alone, and I hope society can learn that lesson from American Sniper.
Though the film is far from perfect, Eastwood is able to balance intensity and emotionality throughout American Sniper thanks to a deeply unflinching turn by Bradley Cooper.