Chris Kyle had four tours of duty in Iraq, earned a reputation as the greatest of all time, started a program to heal disabled vets—only to return stateside and get murdered by a Marine with PTSD. Why do bad things happen to good people? Maybe because of the classical definition of the tragic hero: a person with heroic qualities, fated by the gods to doom and destruction.
The most lethal sniper in U.S. military history, Kyle wasn’t Army or Marines; he was Navy. Not surprising. Everyone knows by now the Navy SEALs’ reputation for excellence. One hundred sixty confirmed kills. Possibly 255.
Although it precisely follows Kyle’s autobiography of the same name factually (not tonally), “American Sniper” is not a thorough accounting of Kyle’s life. More on that later.
The movie opens on Kyle (Bradley Cooper), prone in a rooftop sniper-hide in Fallujah. Who’s in Kyle’s crosshairs? An Iraqi woman handing off a big grenade to her 8-year-old son, who then proceeds to walk toward a Marine convoy.
A perfect example of why war is hell. As the audience winces and digs in, we’re suddenly flashed back to Kyle’s boyhood in Odessa, Texas. Deer-hunting with dad. When it came to marksmanship, Chris had Tiger Woods’s early-start advantage. Tiger-talent, too.
As a young man, he rides broncos to the exasperation of a bored girlfriend, who Kyle catches “in flagrante delicto” upon returning home early from a rodeo gig. “I just do this to get your attention!” she shrieks. He decides it’s time for a change.
Kyle finds change at Naval Special Warfare Command, Naval Amphibious Base, San Diego. Home of the West Coast SEAL teams and the notorious Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL course.
BUD/S training (SEAL bootcamp) is famous for its brutality. It can easily kill a man. It doesn’t separate boys from men; it separates men from world-class warriors.
More flashbacks establish what will become Kyle’s stateside narrative—the courtship of his wife-to-be, Taya (a shape-shifting performance by blonde Brit actress Sienna Miller, as a brunette).
SEALs don’t lightly reveal what they do, and during their initial verbal sparring at a bar, Chris maintains he’s a professional “dolphin waxer.” Taya’s got his number, though, and it’s a proverbial whirlwind romance.
All too soon, Chris is “in-country,” stacking America’s enemies like cordwood. The Iraqis begin calling him “Shaitan Ar-Ramadi” (the Devil of Ramadi). The Americans call him “The Legend.”
With an $800,000 price on his head, Kyle’s finally in his element. On his .300 Winchester Magnum, he excels at the complicated math of it all: yardage, windage, bullet spin, earth curvature, and earth rotation.
He can compute fast, and under the extreme duress of instantaneous life-death decision-making (who’s a combatant, who’s a civilian), not to mention lethal incoming rounds and shrapnel. Wrong decisions meant lawsuits and court-marshals.
We watch Chris chalk up kill after kill, nailing Iraqi insurgents he observes planting IEDs, suicide-jockeying car bombs, and creeping hither and yon with AK-47s. His platoon hunts al-Qaeda’s beheading specialist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, his lieutenant “the Butcher” (whose weapon of choice is the power drill), and Syrian sniper Mustafa, a former Olympian marksman.
The movie switches back and forth between four collections of war stories (labeled, naturally, “Tour One,” “Tour Two,” etc.) and the ever-deteriorating state of his marriage.
This switching has a ratio similar to that of a NASCAR race, with Iraq being track laps and time with Taya the pit stops. This is unfortunately the hard reality of Special Forces culture; SEAL-team life is adrenaline-fueled, similar to extreme sports, and often ruinous to relationships.
War can eventually be ruinous to warriors as well. We see its creeping effects in the soldier’s classic thousand-yard stare, thanks to Bradley Cooper’s bull-necked, muscled-up, Texas-twanging, soft-spoken, gun-culture-steeped, Southern-male, Oscar-worthy performance. It rings highly authentic.
It’s also Clint Eastwood directing: America’s onscreen manliest man telling war stories about America’s manliest men. That’s loads of integrity and authenticity right there.
And yet Clint left out one of the most interesting (and tragic) stories of Kyle’s life, which was recounted by former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, author of the best-selling “Lone Survivor.” Luttrell is a fellow former sniper, and Texan. He and Kyle were buddies. Leaving the following story in might have helped explain some things.
Fact is, when Kyle got home, he bought a brand-new, tricked-out truck. Went to the gas station to gas up. Two men exited a car, drew guns, and demanded the keys. Chris Kyle automatically sized up which fool handled his gun better, slowly reached for the keys, then pulled his own Colt 1911 and fired two shots under his left armpit, killing both thieves instantly.
Then he leaned on his truck until the cops arrived. They ran his license, he gave them a number to call, and some higher-up at the War Department informed them of whom they were dealing with. They didn’t want to involve a highly decorated veteran in a legal situation, along with all the media bells and whistles.
So here’s the deal: the massive Colt 1911 is a .44 Magnum. That’s a “Dirty Harry” gun. As Dirty Harry says, “This is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world. It can blow a man’s head clean off.” Who directed “American Sniper”? Dirty Harry did. That’s terribly ironic.
But the story got left out of the movie because Kyle left it out of his autobiography. So why bring it up? To discuss the moral of the story, we need the whole story. Mr. Eastwood portrayed pure heroism, Hollywood style, but it’s not the whole truth.
What’s the moral of the story? The U.S. military needs to stop merely pinning medals on its heroes’ chests, and sweeping their post-traumatic stress disorder under the rug.
We in America love Dirty Harry stories too much. We, especially guys, romanticize the idea of a manly man with whom you absolutely do not mess. But really, that man should only be a warrior in a war. Not a civilian. Help the heroes heal.
Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Luke Grimes, E.R. Ruiz, Jake McDorman, Brian Hallisay
Running time: 2 hours, 12 minutes
Release date: Dec. 25
4 stars out of 5