American Sniper is not a war movie. Just in the sense that The Theory of Everything is not a science movie and Foxcatcher is not a wrestling movie; it is a biopic. It’s true that American Sniper takes place during a war, its protagonist is involved with a war, some scenes are war-centric, and one of its themes is the effects of war on its participants; but inherently, all the movie really serves as is a view into Chris Kyle’s life – what he did, why he did it, who he did it for, and how his actions and the events surrounding his life defined him.
Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) grew up as a God-fearing, ‘Murica-loving Texan. Not a redneck, though. He even clarifies to his future wife Taya (Sienna Miller) at their first encounter that “Texans ride their trucks, and rednecks ride their cousins.” But he also tells her that he’d be willing to lay down his life for what he believes is the greatest country on Earth as a Navy SEAL.
Cooper more than earns his third Oscar nomination in this role – capturing the range of Kyle’s patriotism, emotion, charm, and reluctant fame as a result of his actions overseas. Sienna Miller, wrongfully overlooked by the Academy, serves as the embodiment of what troops like Kyle are fighting for, and more importantly, what they’re either coming home to or leaving behind.
The movie deals with war, yes. Specifically, we follow Kyle during his arduous training and his four post-9/11 tours in Iraq. Some scenes work, some don’t, and this is where the distinction between war film and biopic becomes so important. Director Clint Eastwood manages to keep Kyle at the center of the war scenes most of the time. Even when we see an Iraqi family being slaughtered by an Al-Qaeda militant while a fierce sniper secures the area, we see the scene through Kyle’s eyes because it’s shot from his emotional perspective.
Other scenes, particularly in his later tours, focus more on battles between Americans and Iraqis (or as they’re referred to in the movie, “savages”), and because the focus gradually moves from Kyle’s perspective to a general militant’s, the action doesn’t seem to mean as much. When the scenes are done right, however, the movie brings some of the most intense on-screen war moments since 2001’s Black Hawk Down.
Rapidly adding up his kill-list, Kyle’s comrades nickname him “The Legend.” He confidently declares that he’s “willing to meet his creator and answer to every shot he took” back home, but after every shot we see Kyle make, the camera holds back a bit, and shows us as Cooper grasps the reality of what Chris Kyle did for a living. We see the regretful nodding away from the scope and hear the sighs after his bullet stops a beating heart. He resents what he does, but he’s proud to do it – and Cooper makes that heartbreaking realization all the more powerful to the viewer.
In between his tours, we see glimpses of Kyle as a husband and father of two as he unsuccessfully deals with his post-traumatic stress. Unsurprisingly, his behavior disturbs his wife Taya, who suggests he seek help at the local VA. Insistent that he’s fine, his response is always to re-deploy, even though Taya warns him that one of these times, he might not have anything to return to.
My problem with this movie is not with its approach to being a biopic, because in that aspect it’s an emotionally-charged and moving piece on a damaged American hero. My problem is that the film sometimes strays away from that hero, trying instead to bring our focus on some action sequences that aren’t always effective, as well as an ending that wraps up as unfortunately and abruptly as Chris Kyle’s story itself. In a year of stunning biopics like The Theory of Everything and Selma, American Sniper doesn’t completely stand out against its comparative competition, but offers a well-constructed adaptation of a life that everyone will want to know about and that all Americans should know about.
This movie received 4 out of 5 Bulldogs