One of the trailers for American Sniper — which is actually the first sequence in the film — depicts the protagonist, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), a sniper for the American military — covering his men, and sees a woman hand a grenade to a child. He has to decide whether or not the child is going to throw the grenade at his troops, and if he thinks that’s what’s going to happen, he has to pull the trigger. The trailer — and the first sequence — ends before we find out in the film, we eventually get back to that point and learn what happens. The conflict in making that decision is at the very core of American Sniper.
The film is about Chris, one of the best snipers in the history of the U.S. military. It’s about his home life, which includes his eventual marriage to Taya (Sienna Miller). But mostly it’s about the psychological impact of doing what he does. How does killing as many people as he does, as intimately as a sniper rifle permits, affect the psyche of the person pulling the trigger? After his first tour of duty, his resting heartrate is 170/110, which is only really absurdly high.
American Sniper is based on a true story, primarily as documented by the real Chris Kyle’s autobiography. Of course, given the real story, the autobiography can’t exactly tell us everything, since the film takes us right to the end of Chris’ life. I won’t spoil it if you don’t know the story. Suffice to say that the psychological impact of war continues to be a running theme throughout, and if you think you know how it’s going to end based solely on that, you’re probably mistaken.
There are some impressive action scenes contained within American Sniper. This is a war movie, after all, and it’s been directed by Clint Eastwood, who can certainly direct action. If you’re here just for a serious action movie, you probably won’t leave disappointed. But it’s meatier than that, and deserves to be looked at as more than an action movie. It contains a strong drama that will make you think about war, the people participating in it, and the psychological impact on those individuals.
Now, I frame it in that broad of a context because the film does the same. Sure, our protagonist is Chris Kyle, but outside of the effects of war taking their toll on him, we don’t really get a whole lot of insight into the man. He’s here to make the film’s points, not to be a deep or complex man. He’s iconized in the film as a great man, sure, but not as one you can’t really read off the bat. He’s two-dimensional at best, and that’s only because we get a few scenes of him prior to joining the military.
Bradley Cooper turns in career-best work as Chris Kyle. Almost every other time you see Cooper on-screen, you think “oh, hey, it’s Bradley Cooper.” And that’s even the feeling during his good roles. For perhaps the first time, that type of feeling doesn’t occur. You feel like you’re watching Chris Kyle, not Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle. It’s a transformative role and it alone is almost worth seeing American Sniper.
I have a feeling the film will play best to patriotic Americans, because that’s the kind of movie it is. Chris enlists right after 9/11 happens, feeling the urge to help protect his country. Then he re-enlists several times, because his love of country and his fellow countrymen is just that strong. Never mind serious injuries both of the body and the mind. It’s not really a propaganda film, but it is quite patriotic, and if that’s something that appeals to you, then you’re going to like it for that.
American Sniper takes the story of the deadliest sniper in the history of the United States military and uses him as a conduit through which the audience can view the psychological toll that war can take on its participants. It doesn’t, however, give us a particularly complex main character. He’s here to show us how much he loves America and demonstrate how killing other people affects the mind of the one pulling the trigger. American Sniper has good action and sends an important message, and does so while dripping in patriotism. It’s worth seeing as long as you’re not looking for a deep Chris Kyle biopic.