Before the release of American Sniper, I did not know who Chris Kyle was. I am not an American so this isn’t exactly surprising, I should imagine his story was headline news over here for a day or two. Not only is his story interesting, it’s also important and those two significant factors coupled together with Bradley Cooper and Clint Eastwood spells success. There were things that bothered me about the film, plastic babies aside, but I think overall the story being told is delivered exceptionally and the subject matter is handled tastefully. When the title credits rolled, I furiously Googled “Chris Kyle” and it’s safe to say, I certainly know who he is now.
For those of you not familiar with his story, I will briefly explain it here. American Sniper is a true story based on the life of US Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, who enlisted and was sent to Iraq as a sniper. He became a hero amongst the ranks for his extremely high number of kills and after 10 years of service he returned to his normal life and moved back to his home state of Texas with his wife and children. Despite his best attempts, returning to normal life was difficult and he was plagued with the thoughts of American soldiers dying in Iraq without being able to help them so he turned his services to helping out veterans with life changing injuries or PTSD living in Texas. His life plays out pretty successfully, what with his major achievement in the military, his wonderful family at home and his decision to help veteran soldiers back on his home turf, it’s all very ‘Hollywood’. The tragedy of Chris Kyle’s story lies in the fact that in February 2013, he was shot and killed by a schizophrenic veteran he was trying to help.
The overall impact of the film would have been much less had Kyle not been murdered less than two years before the film was released, the fact that the intentions of the film were not as a memorial, but as way of documenting his story as written in his book only makes his death more tragic.
It’s easy to pick this film apart as some critics have decided to do. It certainly had its flaws and Clint Eastwood has been criticized for not portraying the horrors of modern warfare accurately, instead settling for a more accessible rating to boost box office success. However, the story being told here is so much more than box office success, ratings and gore. It’s a first-hand account of one man’s experiences as a Navy SEAL on the front line in Iraq. Regardless of the political issues at hand, countless men were dropped into a derelict war zone to do one thing, and one thing only – kill terrorists. My knowledge of modern warfare stretches about as far as The Hurt Locker which, lets face it, isn’t that far. This film took us into the heart of it and yes, I am sure certain horrific details were omitted to allow for more patriotism and self-indulgence, but lest we forget that we watched a man drill into a child’s skull while the child screamed in pain and fear? I don’t think it’s such a bad thing that more grizzly accounts were left out, I think it would have drastically altered the dynamic of the film into something almost unwatchable. The handling of Iraqi’s and terrorists was at times a little heavy handed for me, referring to them as ‘savages’ and stripping them bare of any element of decent human nature. The fact that the film was taking place in a classified ‘warzone’ meant that the only Iraqis we were going to encounter were going to be terrorists, which is fair enough, and that every kill Chris Kyle makes is to prevent his fellow troops from being killed. Representing a group of people in films, especially when it comes to a sensitive subject matter like terrorists, a film maker has a responsibility to be respectful of that group. I am not saying I would like to have seen more kindness towards the terrorists, but I would have certainly liked to have seen a better representation of the Iraqi people. However, as the story being told belongs to one man, his opinions and views are going to come across strongly in it, whether the rest of the world agree with him or not.
Without reading the book or knowing the ins and outs of Kyle’s life its hard to know how much was glossed over for the sake of keeping the film under two and a half hours. For example, there was the rather irritating scene where a shaky-voiced Kaya calls Chris into the living room to see the twin towers collapsing on television, then the next minute Chris is being enlisted to the Navy SEAL’s. In addition, when Chris returns home for good, there is between 5 and 10 minutes of the film dedicated to him not being able to adjust back into normal life, one trip to the doctors and BAM, he’s alright. Maybe that is the way it happened, but I find it hard to believe and an opportunity to explore PTSD experienced by militaries returning home was slightly missed.
Bradley Cooper was absolutely sensational and did Chris Kyle proud in his portrayal of him. He was almost completely engulfed by everything about Kyle’s personality that you totally forget that it’s Bradley Cooper. His southern drawl, his size, his mannerisms, the way he holds the gun, the way he wears his hat, the way he treats his wife and his children, his patriotism, his pride, his dedication and the attention to detail are what made Cooper’s performance worthy of his Oscar nomination, if it wasn’t for Eddie Redmayne, I dare say he would have easily taken home the prize. This was undoubtedly a difficult role to play, what with Kyle’s ability to distance himself from the human lives he was ending to see them purely as enemies. One moment in particular stood out as he was ready to shoot and kill and young boy who had armed himself with a grenade launcher, at the last minute, the boy dropped it and ran away. This part of Kyle’s story is difficult for me to understand or comprehend as in the moment, he is strong enough to kill the most seemingly innocent people for the sake of his fellow troops. I can only imagine what I would do in that situation and I know I would not be a strong enough person to make the right decision. He was and that’s what sets him apart from the average Joe in the audience. His country, his friends and his fellow servicemen always came first and that is a quality most desired in someone fighting for their country and one in which Kyle emulated throughout his military career.
American Sniper is very ‘American’ so as non-American, some of the patriotism is a little lost on me. Coming from a country where most of its residents are not particularly patriotic is a little bit embarrassing but like most, I find it hard to love a country which is such a political nightmare. American patriotism is admirable, the way in which men and women fight for their country because, to quote Chris Kyle, ‘America is the greatest country on earth’ is something I personally struggle to relate to because I have never felt that kind of pride for my own country, as sad as that may be. Despite my lack of understanding, his love for his country, his heart of gold and his personal values are what made him an incredible person and an American Hero. His death was a complete tragedy, as is any unwarranted death, but for someone so dedicated to their homeland to die at the hands of a schizophrenic war veteran with a gun in his hands was a heart breaking misfortune.
American Sniper is about as patriotic as they come and for a film about modern warfare that takes you into the heart of the action it certainly fulfils its quota. Chris Kyle’s story was treated respectfully and while some political or more harrowing parts were omitted for the sake of cinema, it painted a horrifying and eye opening picture of the events occurring between 1999 and 2009 in the Middle East, albeit somewhat jaded in parts.