It would be easy to assume that a film with a title like, ‘American Sniper’ would be your run-of-the mill war film but fortunately, this is not the case.
We open on one of the most tense situations you can imagine which is gripping from the start. Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is lying atop a rooftop in Iraq, surveying a convoy of American troops below. It’s not long before a woman and child emerge onto the street and, through Kyle’s scope, we see the woman pass a grenade to the child. Kyle is poised, finger on the trigger, tensing. Ready. This is where we leave him to learn more about the events which have led him to this moment, taking aim at a child in war torn Iraq.
The film is a biopic about the life of Chris Kyle, a special forces sniper. He was credited with 160 kills making him the deadliest marksman in American military history. The film takes a broad look at his life from his childhood hunting deer with his father and protecting his brother from bullies all the way to the day of his murder at the hands of an army veteran he was trying to help in 2013. These bookends are fleeting though as the main meat of the story is concerned with Chris Kyle’s four tours of Iraq and his role as protector to his brothers in arms.
A scene early on where Kyle’s father tells him that there are three types of people, Wolves, Sheep and Sheepdogs is a theme that runs throughout. From protecting his brother at school as a child to protecting his brothers on the battlefield Kyle is always the sheepdog that his father wished for.
Clint Eastwood makes a clear and conscious decision with his direction to leave the morality discussion of the Iraq war to one side by exploring the conflict completely through the narrowed lens of Chris Kyle’s sniper scope. At times this could have felt limiting if it wasn’t for the fact that Cooper’s portrayal of Kyle is perfectly restrained yet intense. This is not really a war film in the traditional expectation of the genre. There’s no real glory to be had here, not by Kyle anyway. As his buddys celebrate his kills, calling him ‘Legend’, Kyle takes each kill with something close to remorse. He doesn’t relish the killing and justifies it in his own mind as necessary in protecting his brothers down on the ground.
It’s actually the scenes that take place during Kyle’s R&R that are perhaps more telling of the war setting as it is here that he feels out of place. A car driving a little too close for comfort on the freeway, a dog playing a bit too roughly with a child; these are moments that Kyle struggles to deal with rationally. As his wife tells him, perhaps a little too tritely, “Even when you’re here, you’re not here”. It’s jarring that every time we see his kids they have grown up so quickly, something soldiers must face all the time. It’s a small detail but one that helps bring out the human element of this story and the chemistry between Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller is certainly believable if nothing we haven’t seen before.
When Kyle finally realises that he can no longer take this lifestyle he quits the military and starts spending time with wounded veterans, forever the sheepdog, protecting his flock even after the military life has ended. Through this he manages to heal himself, now leading a happy family life.
I’m glad that the filmmakers decided to not show the actual murder of Chris Kyle at the hands of Eddie Ray Routh instead choosing to focus on the last moments he spent with his family as this is much more effective in ending American Sniper, a story about a man, not a story about violence.