The film tells the story of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), the most lethal sniper in American military history. After seeing terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies on television, Chris is inspired to enlist and becomes a Navy SEAL at age thirty. The film then documents his four tours in Iraq as well as his brief time at home with his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), whom he married right before he shipped out.
The film basically boils down to something Chris’ father says when he’s a boy—there are three kinds of people in this world: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. Chris spends his life trying to be a sheepdog. Whether it’s protecting his little brother—at least until he shows himself to be a sheep in Chris’ eyes, a cardinal sin to his father—or protecting his brothers in arms, Chris has a real savior complex. The only people he doesn’t seem to feel the need to save are his wife and children, since all he does when he’s home is think about the war and obsess over the men he couldn’t save. These scenes are decent, but after thinking about the film, all I can remember Chris doing at home is brooding or waiting for his wife to give birth. Then, with one doctor’s visit, his PTSD magically disappears—at least that’s what it felt like in the film. Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall spend so much time on the “Sniper” part of the title that he simply glosses over the home front scenes, which when you think about it, should be the most important and poignant material. We’ve seen this before in The Hurt Locker, only that film was far more expertly handled. Maybe because Chris Kyle was a real guy, the story is treated more with kid gloves, but I felt the movie was very incomplete and lopsided in its telling.
However, the military angle of the film is done very well and Cooper does a great job as a guy who’s just doing his job, to one who begins to believe his own legend. All the war scenes are tense and thrilling. Eastwood does an excellent job showing the fog of war that consumes and disorients troops in the field. They have to make split-second, life-altering decisions and live with the consequences.
One part of the film that was laughably bad was the completely fake baby that was used when Chris’ kids are newborns. The thing is so obviously a doll that it’s pathetic. I mention it, because it plays to something that’s been an issue in Eastwood’s last few films—a lack of attention to detail. J. Edgar and Jersey Boys both had some glaringly terrible age makeup going on and those elements became distracting, as does super-fake baby.
Cooper is excellent in the role of Chris Kyle and it’s interesting to watch him transform from generally affable guy to paranoid psycho with the thousand yard stare. It’s sad as well. Miller does very well with what she’s given, but honestly, because the film focuses so heavily on the war aspect, she doesn’t have a ton of time on screen. The supporting cast is good too, but this is Cooper’s show all the way. He definitely wasn’t as good as David Oyelowo in Selma, but the Academy didn’t see it that way.
Overall, American Sniper is a decent war film that skimps on the home drama. It is a little to “rah-rah” at times, so if that turns you off, you probably won’t like it. It’s most certainly not one of the best pictures of the year, but to each his own.