The overwhelming American Sniper is cast in shadow from start to finish by two real-world tragedies, one very broad and one very precise. The first is the irresolution of the Iraq war, the conflict to which the film’s titular character—Navy SEAL Christopher Kyle—was deployed four times. The second is the 2013 murder of Kyle at the hands of a disturbed veteran he was trying to help. As a result of these tragedies, the movie that tells their stories is haunted and grave.
American Sniper is about the toll of war—on Kyle, on his family, on the people with whom he served—and the way in which the sacrifices Kyle and others made to serve their country ennobled them and made them grand. These are immensely powerful themes, and the movie leaves you in a state of devastated awe. Strangely, though, they aren’t really the themes Chris Kyle himself stressed in the 2012 memoir on which the movie is based. Indeed, judging from that book, it’s not clear that the Chris Kyle we see in American Sniper is all that much like the real Chris Kyle.
There isn’t a lighthearted moment in American Sniper. It begins with Kyle on a rooftop in Fallujah; an Iraqi boy has been handed a rocket-propelled grenade and is walking toward an American convoy. Kyle is on “overwatch,” keeping an eye on the streets as American forces patrol them. The shot is his call.
Director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall then jump back in time to Kyle’s first time shooting a gun, while on a deer hunt with his father. Chris bags the deer and drops his rifle to admire his own handiwork, at which point his stern father upbraids him for mishandling the weapon. We then see a kid beating up Chris’s brother on a school playground and Chris interceding. After hearing about the incident, their father takes out his belt and is ready to mete out some justice until he is convinced Chris did the right thing.
The somber mood is not leavened by the budding love we witness between Kyle (Bradley Cooper) and his wife Taya (Sienna Miller). She is sharp and tough and fragile all at the same time; dating the wrong men has left her one of the emotionally walking wounded. Chris is quiet and interested but self-contained. She says her sister was engaged to a SEAL and so she knows they are self-centered. He responds that he would lay down his life for his country; how could that be self-centered? She has no answer. She trembles with fear as they become intimate.
When Chris deploys to Iraq, he finds his true calling. He is there to protect his country, and he does so by protecting its fighters—watching from above as they work the streets of Fallujah or Ramadi or Sadr City. He looks through a Leica viewfinder, spots an insurgent, and takes him out before the insurgent can injure an American.
He is not disturbed by the lives he takes. Rather, he is troubled by the lives he cannot save when he is not there. He is nerve-jangled at home by the very absence of the threats his extraordinarily watchful eye could pick up from 1,000 or 2,000 meters away. Taya feels his distance and is terrified and angered by it. He will not acknowledge that anything is wrong.
As he goes on his second tour, and his third, and his fourth, nothing much seems to be changing. From one town reduced to rubble, he moves to another, and then to Baghdad’s poorest and most dangerous neighborhood, where he and his fellows find themselves caught in an ambush just as a vicious sandstorm rolls in.
Chris Kyle must then reconstitute himself as a postwar warrior, haunted by what he has seen and the extremes of emotion and adrenaline to which his body has been subjected. It is a strain and a trial for him, and what we see is that he chooses to rebuild by returning to his first objective: devoting himself to helping others. And, in so doing, he loses his life.
That horrible, pointless death is key to the film, even though we never see it. The truth is that had Chris Kyle lived, American Sniper would likely be a very different film. The way Kyle saw himself was distinct from the character we see embodied here so unforgettably by Bradley Cooper, in a towering performance no one could have expected from him.