As the lights came up in the screening room last week, my first thought was that I just watched one powerful film about one extraordinary character – a real American hero. But after letting that thought simmer in my brain for a few days, my opinion has changed. Now I think that AMERICAN SNIPER is one problematic film about one problematic character. So what happened? To start, I learned a bit about the film’s protagonist, Chris Kyle – who he was, what he did and what he stood for. It seems that he wasn’t the saint in real life that he appeared to be in the film. The real Chris Kyle had a bit of an overactive imagination, it seems. While there is no doubt he killed scores of Iraqi insurgents during the Iraq War, he claimed 250 kills. The US military says he “only” killed 160. Kyle also claimed that he got into a fight with former WWE wrestler and Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura in a bar in 2006 over some comments that Ventura allegedly made. Ventura sued Kyle, claiming that the incident never happened. He won the suit and was awarded almost US$2 million in damages. (In light of the movie’s success and, no doubt, increased sales in Kyle’s book, American Sniper, Ventura is now apparently suing Kyle’s estate again for further damages.)
I’m now left to ask whether a filmmaker has an obligation to tell the whole story when making a film about a real person or a real event. (The same can be said about the film, SELMA, which I’ll review and discuss in a few weeks’ time.) There is a very valid concern that Hollywood scriptwriters are rewriting history. In this age of Wikipedia, not enough people seem to care one way or the other.
But let’s put all that aside for the sake of this review and assume that the film is an accurate recount of Chris Kyle’s story.
AMERICAN SNIPER is a film about a man who had just two missions in life – protect his country and protect his family – and how one mission affected the other. Nicknamed “the Legend” by his brothers-in-arms (and “the Devil of Ramadi” by his Muslim enemies), Kyle (Bradley Cooper, who also co-produced the film) distinguished himself by notching up as many as 160 kills over four tours of duty in Iraq – that’s about 1,000 days for us non-military types. Unlike so many other soldiers, Kyle was able to approach his work with steely nerves and a clear conscience. His sense of righteousness left no doubt in his mind. He would kill anyone who tried to kill him or his fellow soldiers. This was a lesson he learned at an early age from his father who taught him that there are three types of people in the world: wolves, sheep and sheepdogs. His life’s mission would be to be the sheepdog to protect the sheep from the wolves. And this he did with lethal precision.
Unfortunately, Kyle found that with each tour, he’d leave a little piece of himself behind on the battlefield. In this respect, he was no different than the thousands of other soldiers who struggle with transitioning back to non-combat, civilian life. With the help of his wife Taya (Sienna Miller, FOXCATCHER) and the VA, he was able to find himself by offering kindness and support to his fellow veterans who came back permanently (both physically and emotionally) scarred. Sadly, it was one of these troubled men who ultimately took Kyle’s life.
AMERICAN SNIPER is one brutally tense film to watch. No other director, except for perhaps Steven Spielberg, shoots battle scenes better than Clint Eastwood does. As I was watching the film, I thought of the opening scenes of Spielberg’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, when the American soldiers were landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day. There, too, the tension was relentless. In SNIPER, we see what Kyle sees through the high-powered scope on his rifle. We feel what he feels when he has to make a decision whether or not to shoot a young boy. We suffer when he suffers as he tries – and often fails – to reconnect with his wife and family stateside.
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That’s what is good about the film. The not so good is that SNIPER both glosses over Kyle’s less than holy side and it steers clear of showing the depravity of the Iraq War. There are no scenes of torture in Abu Ghraib Prison, nor is there any mention of the WMDs that have yet to be found. The “enemy” is faceless for the most part and is known simply as “al-Qaeda”. Here, again, is the major problem with the film. What is the difference between the fanatics who kill in the name of their religion and Chris Kyle? Were Kyle’s actions any more correct just because he embraced Western values? In essence, he was Jesus with a gun. SNIPER, unfortunately, ignores this double standard and, in fact, takes the flag waving route as can be seen in the closing scenes of the film that showed the outpouring of American patriotism following Kyle’s death. I wouldn’t have minded it so much had the story been more balanced.
Not surprisingly, SNIPER is 100% Bradley Cooper. No one else matters in the film. Cooper apparently put on 40 pounds of bulk to look like Kyle. With his bushy beard, he comes across as a Paul Bunyan in army fatigues. Once again, Cooper proves that he’s more than just a pretty face. He can act. It’s just unfortunate that Eastwood and the screenwriter let him down with a script that was so narrowly focused.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 33:35.)