“It’s your call.” So responds a radio command at the end of American Sniper’s introductory salvo. Immediately, this gives the audience an insight into the life of the sniper: deciding who lives, and who dies. As the sound of Chris Kyle’s (Bradley Cooper) rifle shot fills the cinema, an immaculate piece of editing transports the action back to when a young Kyle is first introduced to the power of a gunshot on a hunting trip with his father.
Throughout the story Kyle is plagued by a saviour complex – an unhealthy mentality which was formed during his childhood. After a schoolyard brawl, Kyle Snr. informs his two sons that there are three types of people: sheep, wolves, and sheep-dogs, the latter of which protect the others. This is the formative moment which sees the adult Kyle enlist in the Navy, and following his marriage to Taya (Sienna Miller), his SEAL Team 3 is deployed to the Iraq War.
What follows are the landmark moments of his four tours-of-duty, as he becomes a “Legend” to his fellow soldiers, and a highly-valued target to his enemies. The story of the man heralded as “the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history”, who amassed over 160 confirmed kills, unfolds on two fronts, in Iraq and at home. When he returns Stateside, Kyle is a changed man, commented on from a physical perspective by Taya, whilst his rashness and growing distance show the strains on his mentality. The scenes featuring Kyle’s home-life may feel outnumbered by those in the warzone, but that is what is needed. After all, this is the story of how he became the titular American Sniper.
The final portion of the movie focuses on Kyle’s return home following his last tour, and the associated struggles he experienced with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The finale of the film is an emotional experience, incorporating actual footage to create a uniquely powerful climax. The pathos of which carries on into the final credits which roll across the screen in sobering silence, combining with the cinema’s darkness to invite the audience to ponder over what has unfolded, and the reality of war itself.
Produced by Cooper himself, the actor has nursed the true story of American Sniper to the big screen since he purchased the rights to Kyle’s autobiography in 2011. It has clearly been a passion project for the actor, who truly commits to the role of Kyle. He captures the mentality of the man, patriotic to many, but also plagued by guilt and a fragility following the horrors of Iraq, as well as the sheer physicality of the part. Having bulked up for the role, he dominates the screen in more ways than one. Earning Cooper his third consecutive Oscar nomination, it is perhaps a career-defining performance. The same is also true of his co-star, best known for roles in relatively smaller films, Miller surprises with the heft of her performance as Taya, lending a certain gravitas to what could have easily become a one-note supporting role.
Credit must also be reserved for Clint Eastwood whose sure-footed and economical direction lends a huge dose of authenticity to this cinematic adaptation. Criticised by some for the film’s lack of perspective on the war, and accused of filming a patriotic “flag waver” by others, Eastwood delivers something which, although not to everyone’s taste, is a powerful drama.
Of course the film is patriotic; the reality is that Kyle was a proud American who fought for “God. Country. Family.” However, American Sniper does not shy away from the cost of the Iraq war, socially, mentally, and physically, and there are anti-war messages within. Between Cooper’s committed and powerful acting, and Eastwood’s clear direction, his best in a while, American Sniper is a thought-provoking film.