We first view Chris Kyle in American Sniper as he’s staring down the scope of his sniper rifle at an Iraqi insurgent: a little boy holding a deadly grenade. As Chris trains his sights on this young killer, who can’t be more than 7 or 8 years old, director Clint Eastwood cuts to Chris as a child in Texas, shooting a deer during an inaugural hunt with his dad. “That was one hell of a shot,” Wayne Kyle (Ben Reed) tells his son. “You got a gift.”
As the boy (Cole Konis) excitedly rushes toward his first kill, his father admonishes him. “Get back here! Don’t ever leave your rifle in the dirt.”
“Yes, sir,” replies the good little soldier.
Over dinner, the God-fearing Wayne delivers some of the more heavy-handed dialogue in Jason Hall’s script, which he’s adapted from Chris Kyle’s 2012 book, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History.
“There are three types of people in this world: sheep, wolves and sheepdogs,” the proselytizing patriarch tells Chris and his black-eyed younger brother, Jeff (Luke Sunshine), as their mother, Debby (Elise Robertson), sits silently at the table. “Some people prefer to believe that evil doesn’t exist in the world. Those are the sheep.”
As the boys’ father continues sermonizing in the voiceover, Eastwood cuts to earlier in the day, when a bully was beating Jeff up. “There are those who’ve been blessed with the gift of aggression and the overpowering need to protect the flock,” Wayne notes as Eastwood shifts his camera to focus on Chris as he sprints to Jeff’s aid, pulling the bully off his brother and repeatedly punching him in the face. “These men are the rare breed who live to confront the wolf. They are the sheepdog. And if someone tries to fight you, and tries to bully your little brother? You have my permission to finish it. Did you finish it?”
Chris nods, and Eastwood cuts to the outside of a barn at night. Wayne concludes, “Well, then you know who you are,” as an older Chris—no longer a boy—emerges from the barn, dressed in denim, his face obscured by a white cowboy hat. He raises his head, and we see that he’s now played by Bradley Cooper. “You know your purpose.”
This sheepdog finds a place for his purpose when he joins the Navy. During a break in his SEAL training in California, Chris and his future bride, Taya (Sienna Miller, strong in an underwritten, weepy role), meet cute at a bar as he holds her hair back while she vomits. On their wedding day, Taya spots camouflage paint under his ear during their dance at the reception. It’s soon after the horrors of 9/11, and his work is never far behind; he’s called for service that day, heading to a solitary honeymoon in Iraq.
A trigger is pulled as Eastwood cuts back to that Iraqi boy as Chris’ bullet rips through the child’s chest. This will stand as the first of an unmatched 160 confirmed kills spread across four tours of duty, earning him the nickname “The Legend.”
Eastwood is a firm believer in archetypes; he inflates a character who’s mentioned in a single paragraph of the memoir—a Syrian sniper (Sammy Sheik)—into a nemesis who might as well wear a black hat to counter the white one Cooper wore earlier. And why not? American Sniper is another one of Eastwood’s Westerns, transported to the present, with training scenes recalling his 1986 effort, Heartbreak Ridge.
The Kyles’ marriage could also use some basic training, since it’s mostly contained to long-distance phone calls. But they nevertheless manage to produce two children—children nearly left fatherless by one incredibly tense sequence. Pinned down on yet another rooftop perch as a dustbowl rages, Chris believes the end is near as insurgents close in. Phoning Taya for what may be the last time, he tells her, “I’m ready, baby. I’m ready to come home.”
Chris miraculously survives, but he’s wounded, and the scene ends on a shot of his rifle, abandoned in the swirling dirt. He’s done. But the film isn’t.
We’ve grown used to Cooper as a comic performer, but Eastwood recognized something deeper; the actor masterfully projects the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder with subtle changes in breathing and body language. Witness Chris facing the possibility of having to shoot yet another child, a boy roughly the same age as his own son, and then marvel at Cooper’s range.
Returning stateside, Chris sits alone at a bar; “The Legend” can’t bring himself to face his family. Speaking on the phone with him one more time, Taya suddenly realizes: “Wait—you’re home?”
“I just needed a minute,” he stammers, before finally breaking down. The rest of the film settles into the familiar rhythms of PTSD dramatizations found in superior pictures like Kathryn Bigelow’s Best Picture winner, 2008’s The Hurt Locker. But this film has few places left to go. History, however, would provide ironic closure. Chris Kyle was gunned down by another PTSD sufferer, a Marine he was trying to help—an incident Eastwood only alludes to, letting the screen fade to black as a legend is lost to fate.
The film’s taken heat from some quarters for its perceived endorsement of ’Merica’s war machine. Sure, there’s much flag-waving during the newsreel footage of the real Kyle’s funeral that runs under the end credits, but this is Eastwood at his most apolitical, no matter what chair he prefers talking to.
American Sniper ***
Starring Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Kyle Gallner, Cole Konis, Ben Reed, Elise Robertson, Luke Sunshine, Keir O’Donnell, Mido Hamada, Jake McDorman and Sammy Sheik. Written by Jason Hall, based on the book by Chris Kyle, Scott McEwen and James DeFelice. Directed by Clint Eastwood. At Assembly Row, Boston Common, Fenway and Somerville.