Directed by Clint Eastwood and adapted for the screen by Jason Hall, “American Sniper” opens with brief snippets that depict the mindset and philosophy of the Kyle family patriarch, Wayne (Ben Reed). It’s rather profound. Wayne asserts that in this world there are three different types of souls. The first are sheep. Sheep are characterized by helplessness. They are people who are not very good at defending themselves.
The second are wolves. Wolves are predators, the dreaded bullies who prey upon those who are not good at defending themselves. They prey on the sheep. Here Eastwood provides us with a glimpse of a young boy (the sheep soul) being beaten mercilessly by another boy (the wolf soul).
The third soul, Wayne explains, is the sheepdog. The sheepdog is a protector. He righteously and vehemently intervenes on behalf of the sheep.
From here, viewers now see the Kyle family at the dinner table. Young Jeff Kyle has a battered eye. His older brother Chris is next to him. Their iron-fisted patriarch finishes by saying that he didn’t raise any sheep in his household and that he better not ever find that any of his children have taken on the attributes of a wolf. He slams his belt on to the table. He gazes at Chris. Chris speaks up and asserts that his younger brother Jeff was being bullied. The elder Kyle then asks Chris, “Did you finish it?” Chris nods affirmatively and replies, “Yes sir.”
It is there at the Kyle dinner table that we are definitively introduced to the soul of Chris Kyle. Chris Kyle possesses the soul of the sheepdog, a character trait that will later garner Chris honor and glory, but will also serve as a profound impediment. How does this type of soul flourish in a world that no longer requires him to act upon his very nature?
Based on the Chris Kyle autobiography, “American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History”, the film fast-forwards to an adult Chris as he watches the bombing of the World Trade Center. The sheepdog in Chris knows what he must do. He promptly visits a navy recruiter and goes into training as a Navy Seal, where, due to his keen 20/10 vision, he is trained as a sniper. What does 20/10 vision mean? It means (as noted in the original “American Sniper” script-a scene cut from the film) that Chris can “spot a bug on a blade of grass from 50 yards away.”
Chris goes on to willingly serve four tours in Iraq. There, in the name of American freedom, he is obligated to shoot even women and children if they ultimately prove to be a threat against the American forces. In one scene, Chris lays ready on a rooftop as he watches a young boy pick up a massive firearm and attempts to fire it at an American truck. Knowing that he must kill this child, he whispers aloud prayerfully for the little boy to put the weapon down. Finally the boy does indeed put down the firearm and runs away.
In between tours, Chris comes home and fathers two children with his lovely wife Taya (Sienna Miller). But things aren’t warm and rosy on the home front. Taya is concerned about Chris’ mental and emotional health. While his living and breathing body has indeed returned home, it becomes painfully evident that Chris is still in battle/sheepdog mode. He is withdrawn and on edge. She begs him not to return for yet another tour, but each time he feels obligated to return to combat. When he does finally return home, he gets the help he needs and decides to pursue a career in assisting others suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Chris Kyle ultimately and unwittingly becomes the most deadly sniper in U.S. history, and Bradley Cooper handily transforms himself into this beefy-built, true-life, stoic war hero, while proving that there isn’t a role out there too challenging for him to master. Prior to 2012, Cooper’s roles in “All About Steve”, “Limitless”, “The Hangover”, “The A Team” and “Valentine’s Day” all seemed to highlight the obvious. Cooper was cast as that suave, good-looking guy. Yes, it was evident that he could act, but these roles were all one-dimensional. I barely took notice of him.
Then, along came David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook”, with Cooper cast in the lead as Pat Solatano. This was the role that broke the mold for Cooper. Cooper, as a young man battling bipolar disorder, enchanted the film industry and garnered himself an Academy Award nomination.
“Silver Linings” gave way to “American Hustle”, and I’ve had my eye on him ever since. A mere two years later, it is Cooper’s performance prowess that carries “American Sniper”. Unlike “American Hustle” and “Silver Linings Playbook”, “American Sniper” is Bradley Cooper’s film and his alone. He does not have to share it with the likes of powerhouses Jennifer Lawrence or Christian Bale. Cooper carries this film on his own and keeps his audience riveted from his very first scene to the finale, and certainly Eastwood knew that such would be the case.
Sienna Miller as Chris’ wife Taya is lackluster. There is something slightly off about her performance. Granted, there wasn’t very much to this role, but whatever there was to it, Miller wasn’t making it work.
The pacing of this production is deliberate, solid and convincing. Eastwood has been in the game long enough to have garnered the wherewithal to provide viewers with a film worthy of the rising cost of admission. The final grainy and clouded battle scene, which takes place in a sand storm, metaphorically depicts Chris’ resolution to return home as pieces of his combat gear are seen scattered upon the ground when he finally catches up to his comrades to escape the mayhem. That being said, audiences are not exactly clear what serves as the catalyst that makes Chris decide that it’s time to go home. Is it simply battle fatigue? Perhaps so, but that is mere speculation on the viewer’s part. One is moved to ponder – was there no battle fatigue by tour number two or tour number three?
In spite of controversial diatribes about the nature of this film and the real life of Chris Kyle, it should be noted that “American Sniper” is simply the story of a man who serves his country as sniper during war time. A man who, due to his sheepdog mentality, cannot disconnect from his nature to take action. Unless there are aspects of Chris Kyle’s role as a sniper that audiences are not being made privy to, he operated as he was instructed, to shoot only at those who posed a fatal threat to his comrades below. Is the film glorifying violence? It’s a film about war. War is violence. If we charge “American Sniper” as a film that glorifies violence, then we must certainly charge every war film that preceded it as well. Let’s keep this in its proper perspective, America.
Topping the box office for the last two weeks in a row, “American Sniper” is rated R for mild graphic violence and is now in wide release, providing Eastwood with the biggest box office opening of his career. It has been nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor for Cooper.
The film is well worth the price of admission. See it now before the Academy Awards.