‘American Sniper’ Aims for a New American Myth
Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper deliver a stellar movie about a complicated war… and man
Chris Kyle—the most lethal sniper in American military history—aims down his rifle. He watches over the Marines below as they move door to door in Iraq.
A woman and a child step into Kyle’s sights. He radios to his command. “Her arms aren’t swinging,” he says. “She’s carrying something.” The command doesn’t have eyes on the pair. It’s his call, they say.
“They’ll fry you if you’re wrong,” his spotter says.
The woman pulls an old Russian grenade from under her clothing. She hands it to the child. Kyle breaths. He pulls the trigger.
The crack of the bullet pulls the audience back in time to Kyle’s childhood. He hunts with his father, goes to church and saves his little brother from a bully. In five minutes, director Clint Eastwood explains Kyle’s moral code.
Back in Iraq, Kyle kills the woman and the child. Theirs are the first of many deaths. It would be easy for viewers to see Kyle as a monster. A remorseless killer of women and children.
Kyle doesn’t see it that way. To him, most people are sheep. Others become wolves and prey on the sheep. A third, special group, are born with a capacity for violence and the ability to tell good from bad. They are the sheepdogs. They must protect the sheep from the wolves.
It’s this moral code that allows Kyle to kill more than 160 people on the battlefield—including women and children. They are the bad guys who deserve to die. It’s that simple.
A moral code like that could make for a fun but dull Iraq war movie. Eastwood and writer Jason Hall are smarter than that. Eastwood’s movies often center on men with dubious moral codes the rest of the world finds abhorrent.
American Sniper is no different. Kyle’s view of the world as a battle between the forces of good and evil is not shared by the rest of the characters in the film. Kyle’s wife wants him home raising their family.
She’s disconnected from him when he comes home. “Your hands feel different,” she says. Killing changed him.
His fellow soldiers fight for different reasons. Many of them are miserable in Iraq. Kyle runs into his little brother at one point. The brother is leaving the country. Kyle is happy to see him, but his brother looks shaken and scared.
“Fuck this place,” he says.
Kyle looks confused. As if he can’t process why anyone would hate killing bad guys in Iraq.
This schism between Kyle’s worldview and the rest of the world is one of the film’s great strengths. It elevates what easily could have been a hagiography into something more interesting and subtle.
The other great strength is the film’s treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. Kyle kills many dozens of people. That amount of violence affects people whether they want to believe it or not.
Kyle spends much of his time on the home front denying he’s changed by the violence. But his body and mind betray him. During the sonogram of his first child, a concerned nurse takes his blood pressure. It’s 170 over 110.
He’s never at ease back home. He doesn’t communicate well with his wife. He’s always on edge. An odd van on the highway is a source of terror.
Bradley Cooper plays Kyle, and the actor shines during these moments back home.
Cooper gives the performance of his career. He did the work—put on the weight and studied the real Kyle’s mannerisms. His Texas accent—a sound I’m sensitive to as a native Texan—is excellent. His thousand-yard stare and shuddering breath seem real.
Sienna Miller as Taya—Kyle’s wife—is also brilliant. She’s a woman raising a family with half a husband. A husband who calls from war zones. She listens to firefights while her man tells her he loves her.
“You have to make it back to us,” she says. She’s not talking about him surviving Iraq, but coming home from war. These are two very different concepts.
Some see Kyle as a hero—an American patriot who beat back the savage forces of Islamism. Others see him as a monster—a murderer of hundreds. A man who—by his own admission—enjoyed killing.
This film derives from Kyle’s 2012 best-selling memoir. A book that sold well, I suspect, because it’s uncomplicated. It tells the story of a man who was good at his job. That job was dealing death.
It’s grotesque to be angry at Kyle for this. Killing is the job that his country asked him to do. He was at war. Killing and destruction are in the job description.
That does not mean he was a good man, a great man or even a hero. Some will say he is. But the truth of his life—left on the cutting room floor of the film—was far more complicated.
Kyle was an advocate for his fellow soldiers. He died in 2013 on a firing range, when a young vet he was trying to help turned a gun on Kyle and killed him.
He was also a braggart who claimed to have punched former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura. Ventura—Kyle alleged—insulted America, the war and the troops during the wake of a fallen soldier. He sued Kyle’s estate for libel and won $1.8 million in court, saying he’d never met the man.
Kyle also claimed the mercenary group Blackwater hired him to sit atop the New Orleans Superdome in the wake of Katrina and snipe looters. He claimed he killed 30. But he was drunk when he made that claim, and no one has ever been able to substantiate it.
After his tours, Kyle drank a lot and fought in bars. It damaged his marriage. None of these little stories made it into the film. They would damage the myth Eastwood creates.
But none of that matters. The film is so well done that its disconnection from reality doesn’t matter. We don’t go to movies like American Sniper to see heroes brought low. We go to understand them and take part in the creation of a myth.
Eastwood understands that, but he also wants the audience to acknowledge that people like—and even love—Kyle because he’s a killer, not in spite of it. It’s why the movie opens with the death of a mother and child. It’s why Eastwood takes pains to show the effect killing has on Kyle.
Before the film began, an older gentleman leaned over and confided in me that he owned a McMillan TAC-338—the same rifle Kyle used in Iraq. I asked if he’d ever shot it. “Not yet,” he said. He grinned then told me he was thinking about buying a $600 scope for his toy.
He spoke of Kyle in the way a comic book fan speaks of Batman.
Kyle is already a myth. His fellow soldiers called him The Legend. Eastwood’s film extends that myth. Decades from now, only Kyle’s closest friends and family will remember him as a man.