American Sniper is gruesome, complex, and morally ambiguous. It’s disturbing in a way that’ll leave you uncomfortable, like you want to look away but can’t. In short, it’s a chilling portrait of war. Maybe that’s exactly the way it should be.
Based on the memoirs of Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper), who at 160 confirmed kills was the deadliest sniper in US history, American Sniper isn’t so much a story as it is an exploration of the man affectionately dubbed ‘The Legend’ by his compatriots.
The structure itself is loose. We follow Kyle from childhood through to his enlistment in the Navy and his four tours in Iraq. There’s no overarching narrative here, save for a feigned attempt to create a rivalry between Kyle and an enemy sniper. The movie embraces the sort of randomness one would expect in a true story. For the most part it’s just a collection of Kyle’s experiences in Iraq.
The true arc – expressed excruciatingly well by Cooper, who deserved that Oscar nomination he got on Thursday – is within Kyle, and how he processes and struggles with his experience in the war.
For his part, Chris Kyle is a man who thinks in black and white. To him there is good and evil, and not much room in between. He’s an avid supporter of the war in Iraq and routinely calls the people there “savages”. He doesn’t understand some of his fellow SEALs who’ve become disillusioned with the United States involvement in the region.
Yet despite all his conviction, Kyle is still clearly conflicted, not only by his experiences in combat – the men he couldn’t save so to speak – but by the oftentimes impossible decisions he’s forced to make in the heat of battle.
Throughout it all, you never get the sense that director Clint Eastwood is serving any particular agenda, pro- or anti-war. He seems content to just portray Kyle’s experiences on the screen, no matter how difficult or morally complicated they may be, and let the audience take from that what they may. The action is tense, the consequences of failure are horrific, and every day the realities of a place like Iraq eat away at the soul. That’s enough for Eastwood.
Of course, that style does have its drawbacks. The scattered nature of the script sometimes means that certain developments feel abrupt or underexplored. Part of that could have been a desire to stick to Kyle’s memoirs – to leave it to just what it was on the page – but given the overall attention paid to his psychological states there were times where it felt like his mindset from point A to point B came with little explanation. This was particularly true of the end of the film, which somewhat glossed over the details of Kyle’s recovery.
Likewise, the dates of certain events are often difficult to track, the only temporal references being which tour Chris is on or the age of his children. Kyle is a guy who’s been at war for a very long time. That’s important and for the most part it’s evident. But how long is never quite clear, and it feels like that information could have been valuable.
Regardless, American Sniper is a thoughtful depiction of the effects that war can have on the life of a soldier and the difficulties some face coming home. Late in the movie, Kyle sits in a bar having just arrived back in the States, unable to return to his family.
Maybe he feels he can’t relate to them anymore, that they’re better off without him. Maybe he feels guilt over not being back in that warzone, saving more of his fellow soldiers. Either way, if you can watch that scene unfold without feeling a tad bit heartbroken, you’re a tougher person than I am.