Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) was a professional rodeo rider from Texas who eventually became the greatest sniper in American history. Kyle had 160 confirmed kills during his four tours in the Iraq War, which he later wrote about in his book, American Sniper, upon which this Clint Eastwood-directed movie is based.
I struggled to write a review for American Sniper—clearly, since I saw the movie weeks ago and have rewritten this post about nine times. The problem is Chris Kyle’s story is so deeply embedded in issues of politics, war, and religion that it’s hard not to say anything that’d be considered “controversial” (on either side of the political spectrum).
To be honest, I could make a case for both extremes. At some points in the film, it felt like a xenophobic circle-jerk for nationalists that glamorized war. At other points, it felt like a solid tribute to military life and what so many soldiers go through to protect their country. It depends on the perspective, which is why it’s hard to review without letting personal beliefs get in the way. So here’s what I’ll do—I’ll try to remain neutral and talk about the film. And if you’re interested in where my true feelings about this movie lie, you can read this article.
In terms of filmmaking, American Sniper is a good movie, and I can see why it received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Film Editing. Its director is an American legend known for his action movies, so he knows what it takes to tell the story of a real-life American legend in action. And the screenwriting, editing, acting, and design of this movie clearly communicate the intensity of battle. I’d even argue it’s a good film for starting much larger discussions about the life of military vets.
While Bradley Cooper does a fantastic job presenting Chris Kyle as the perfect hero—a red-blooded, All-American cowboy soldier who loves his family and stops at nothing to protect the people around him—the place where he failed, as well as where the screenplay and direction failed, was going deeper with Kyle’s struggles during his re-acclimation to society after Iraq. A few scenes suggested he had PTSD, but all it took was one scene with a VA psychologist and the movie suddenly dropped it, which, in my opinion, is a huge mistake.
This isn’t an issue that can be brought up, discussed, and concluded in 1/4 of a film, yet that’s what Clint Eastwood did. And it’s probably why some critics are calling this film “military propaganda.” Because it favors action sequences showing Kyle’s sharp shooting over the emotional difficulties he (and other soldiers) faced. Considering how many veterans struggle with PTSD, disfigurement, job loss, divorce, homelessness, alcoholism, and drug abuse after seeing combat, it’s almost irresponsible to not give those issues more screentime.
Another area where the movie could’ve gone further with character development was with Kyle’s wife Taya (Sienna Miller), whose name I had to look up because it was only mentioned once in the movie. I know she’s not the focus of the movie, which is why her part was relegated to just being the emotional wife and mother back home. But military spouses are real people with lives, too, and the amount of time given to Taya’s struggles of trying to take care of their children and manage their home while waiting to see if her husband came home alive after each tour was almost nonexistent (and then made laughable by the use of a fake baby during one of their fights).
Overall, American Sniper is a good film, but I am disappointed in Clint Eastwood’s direction. Chris Kyle was obviously a hero to his family and those he protected in the Iraq War, but he was also a human who struggled with real issues, like post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD is a serious problem for many active and retired soldiers in our country—some have even taken their own lives because they don’t know how to cope with what they’ve seen and done. To push that aspect of Kyle’s story to the background, making it less important than his confirmed kill record, seems careless and adds to society’s unwillingness to address the mental and emotional health of brave men and women who protect us. An Oscar-nominated film should be willing to “go there” with tough subjects. American Sniper didn’t.
American Sniper: A-
For my radio review of American Sniper on “Pat & JT in the Morning,” visit this link (starts around the 17:33 mark).