By now, we’ve probably all seen the trailers for “American Sniper.” In the suspenseful preview, a Navy SEAL (Bradley Cooper) sits atop a building with one eye looking through his sniper rifle, while muttering “put it down.” From his vantage point, he can clearly see a little boy who has just picked up a gun. He’s hoping he won’t have to shoot and kill the boy, but it’s clear from the muttering that he’s prepared to do it. The approximately 30 second clip is a perfect representation of the entire film: gripping, terrifying and totally polarizing.
Clint Eastwood directs “American Sniper,” which is based on the true story of real-life Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. Kyle served four tours of duty with the Navy between 1999 and 2009, and was involved in many gruesome battles in the Iraq war. Known for his skills as a sharpshooter, Kyle earned himself the moniker “The Legend” for having more than 150 “confirmed kills.” He is reportedly the deadliest sniper in American history, and is often depicted as a hero within his own memoir and within Eastwood’s film.
On Feb. 2, 2013, after completing his service and vowing to remain in the US with his family, Kyle was shot and killed by an alleged veteran he was helping as part of a veteran outreach program.
“American Sniper” tells Kyle’s story, focusing on the humanity of the man rather than his impressive — or rather, depressive — resume. Kyle is presented as a genteel Texan who wants to serve his country and wants to do right by his family. He’s manly. He’s brave. He’s everything a stereotypical hero should be.
Despite trying to remain home in between tours, he can’t seem to shake the feeling that he has job to do, a mission to fulfill and a vulnerable country to protect. This puts an inevitable strain on his relationship with his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), not to mention the strain it puts on his own mental and physical health. When he’s home, he sees and hears war everywhere. The start of a car engine, the benign barking of a dog and even the blackness of a powered-off television give him flashbacks, making the audience feel as uneasy and tense as the main character.
But ol’ Chris Kyle doesn’t give up. He enlists again and again with the hope that he can “take out” rival sniper Mustafa, a fictive nemesis created for the movie. The budding tension between the two snipers is the climax of the film, with Eastwood using muted diegetic sounds and unnerving, lingering close-ups of Cooper’s dirt smeared face to express the emotions of a character who finds them too difficult to talk about. It’s a nice technique. The effect manages to keep audiences on edge without requiring the blood-and-guts gore of typical war movies.
But it’s not all good. True to Hollywood form, both Eastwood and Cooper present a flattering homage to the real Chris Kyle by sidestepping major controversies that engulfed the sniper’s reputation in his final days. Left out are Kyle’s numerous trips to talk shows, the penning of his best-selling book and the lawsuit stemming from fabricated accounts of valor within the memoir. As far as biopics go, “American Sniper” leaves out a huge chunk of the biography. Plus, let’s not forget the totally fake prop baby that is so obvious it’s a distraction to the otherwise emotional scenes.
Somehow still, the audience is expertly wooed into seeing Kyle through Eastwood’s rose-colored glasses, but those who do a bit more research after the film might feel as though they’ve been hoodwinked. Cooper’s Kyle is without flaw to a fault, and — like all real humans — the real Chris Kyle was certainly not. This distinction isn’t just glossed over; it’s shellacked on so thick its hard to know if you’re watching a movie based on Chris Kyle, the person, or a film about a shiny, new character who Eastwood and scriptwriter Jason Hall cooked up in their studio.
Ultimately, “American Sniper” is a well-done action movie. It’s just not a wholly biographical one.
American Sniper is now playing at UA Berkeley 7