American Sniper (Eastwood, 2014)

Bradley Cooper (in foreground) as Chris Kyle, in "American Sniper"
Bradley Cooper (in foreground) as Chris Kyle, in “American Sniper”

(Non-spoiler alert:  This review is free of major spoilers.  The less you know about Chris Kyle’s life story prior to seeing this film, the richer your viewing experience will be.)

What a strange year for Oscar!  With American Sniper, we now have three fact-based movies nominated for Best Picture whose relationship to verifiable truth is problematic.  However, compared to the other two – The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game – the difficulties are less substantial for American Sniper.

With The Theory of Everything, Stephen Hawking’s life was whitewashed free of the nastier bits to fashion a secular saint.  As for The Imitation Game, the more pages I read of Alan Turing’s definitive biography, the more fictional Benedict Cumberbatch’s character becomes.

Clint Eastwood’s film is drawn from Chris Kyle’s autobiography of the same name, recounting his service as a Navy SEAL.  During his time in Iraq, Kyle notched the most confirmed sniper kills in American military history.

Fortunately for Eastwood’s film and for us viewers, it appears that Kyle was primarily veracity-impaired when it came to his civilian life.  Based on reliable journalistic sources (again, I’d recommend perusing these links only after watching the movie), Kyle mainly suffered from Munchausen’s Syndrome when boasting of stateside exploits.  The Pentagon continues to confirm Kyle’s count of 160 enemy kills.  (Then again, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the Pentagon also stuck to their fable of Pat Tillman’s valorous death in a hail of enemy gunfire until that tale became utterly untenable, so do with this information what you will.)

It’s a shame that I have to sandwich this review between so many caveats, for American Sniper is film-making of the highest order.  After a brief opening sequence with Kyle on a Fallujah rooftop, a series of flashbacks reveal Kyle’s earlier life experiences:  a Texas childhood in a milieu of churchgoing hypermasculinity and a directionless young adulthood until he joins the military.  American Sniper then shows us Kyle’s harsh SEAL training, along with his whirlwind romance and marriage to Taya.

From here on, the movie proceeds in a linear fashion, following Kyle through his multiple deployments to Iraq and returns stateside to his growing family.  Eastwood’s direction and Jason Hall’s screenplay admirably set up multiple tension-laden conflicts for Kyle, both internal and external.

In Iraq, Kyle tracks “The Butcher,” a sadistic enforcer with close ties to Al Qaeda leadership.  His major combat adversary, however, is a fellow sniper named Mustafa.  Both Kyle and Mustafa become legendary among friend and foe, but where Kyle possesses doorway-filling bulk, Mustafa is slender and agile, leaping across rooftops to escape American pursuers.

Sammy Sheik, as Al Qaeda sniper Mustafa
Sammy Sheik, as Al Qaeda sniper Mustafa

Eastwood and his crew have outdone themselves in showing us believable combat situations.  I completely bought into their re-creation of Fallujah and Sadr City, with drones and helicopters swooping over battle-wrecked neighborhoods.  American Sniper is tough to stomach at times, with realistic child deaths and bullet holes punching through chests and faces.  As such, my greatest viewing caution extends not to children, but to war vets and their loved ones, for whom this movie could trigger strong psychological distress.

At home, Kyle struggles to maintain intimacy with Taya, given that his heart and mind remain with his endangered buddies still in Iraq.  In playing Kyle’s wife, Sienna Miller gives an excellent performance as a caring spouse who still at times verges on calling it quits.  However, Kyle’s greatest domestic conflict is with internal demons, as he progressively manifests signs of post-traumatic stress.

Kyle, back in Texas with Taya (Sienna Miller)
Kyle, back in Texas with Taya (Sienna Miller)

Since Bradley Cooper is only 40 years old, I hesitate to use the term “career-defining” for his portrayal of Chris Kyle.  But this is most definitely Cooper’s strongest performance to date.  I was fully convinced by his character’s battlefield passion and discipline (so intense that Kyle would rather piss himself and wallow in his own urine for hours, rather than relieve himself elsewhere and miss a golden sniping opportunity).  Still more, his home demeanor resembles that which countless combat veterans and their spouses have described to me, an unstable mix of bland detachment, hypervigilance, and irritability.

I feel a similar reluctance to apply the “career-defining” descriptor to Clint Eastwood, because he’s inhabited so many iconic roles and directed numerous excellent movies.  So let’s just say that American Sniper would be an apt culmination of his film craft.  During 60 years in the movies, Eastwood has ambivalently explored motifs of violence, war, and American manhood.  This wrestling continues with American Sniper and is powerfully summated here.

Unfortunately, extremist pundits now threaten to dominate the discussion of American Sniper and Chris Kyle’s life story in general.  Left or right, it would be tragic if loudmouthed demagogues got the last word on American Sniper.

Sure, there’s ample wet dream material in this movie for those who worship the gun-toting, world-conquering American Jeebus derived from the Gospel According to Fox News.  Frankly, Chris Kyle comes across in American Sniper as unreflective and dichotomous in his thought processes.  He carries his Bible with him everywhere, but doesn’t hesitate to spout ugly words about the “savages” he’s killing, or when in Texas, to turn to beer rather than God for comfort.

But for freethinkers and those who attempt to follow the complicated Jesus of the Four Gospels, there’s deeper matter to ponder in Eastwood’s film.  The decimated cities, the friendly locals who get punched around until they sufficiently demonstrate their bona fides, and the numberless casualties lead to tough moral questions about our involvement in Iraq.  In American Sniper, a handful of soldiers and family members question this legitimacy, though Kyle dismisses such doubters as weak or deficient.  Yet, these queries don’t go away during the course of this movie.

Almost as significantly, while giving us an uber-masculine archetype in Chris Kyle, Eastwood demands to know what truly comprises a good man.  Is it bravado and quick-witted banter?  Or does it have more to do with protecting your friends, loving your family, and looking after the wounded long after they’ve returned home?  In addressing these questions, Eastwood has given us a film of integrity that refuses to pander to any demographic.

4.5 out of 5 stars

(Parents’ guide:  American Sniper is appropriately rated R, considering its many hyperviolent scenes and frequent salty language.  I would steer younger teens away from this.  I also beseech combat veterans and their loved ones to use discernment in choosing whether to view this movie.)

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  • Marco Gol

    Regarding the use of physical violence to resolve problems, shouldn’t Christians try to build on the greater reality?: “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Eph. 6:12.

    For a mind-blowing defense of God’s NONviolent nature, please read

    “SATAN: Old Testament Servant Angel or New Testament Cosmic Rebel?” at

    http://www.clarion-journal.com/clarion_journal_of_spirit/2013/11/satan-old-testament-servant-angel-or-new-testament-cosmic-rebel-by-richard-murray.html

    Author Richard Murray is a criminal defense attorney, with a Masters of Practical Theology from Regent University.

    (Even though you are now an atheist, Andrew, I hope you will consider this explanation of God’s apparent bipolarity/schizophrenia.)

    • Andrew Spitznas

      Hi Hermano:
      Thanks for replying, but I’m just not buying the author’s contention. Besides, all of Jesus’ hell talk indicates that God’s bloodlust and cruelty weren’t sated by NT times. It’s interesting, though, my wife and I were conversing along these lines: for a God who is allegedly not a God of confusion, there’s a lot of murkiness in the books of the Bible: loving/wrathful God, nature of hell, always saved vs. can lose your salvation, works vs. faith, what baptism does, etc.

      For someone who allegedly has an eternity-altering message to convey to humankind, I would think a real god could convey it more clearly than this. (Not to mention of course, the multiple religions and competing truth claims that “god” allows to flourish in our world.)

      Peace,
      Andrew

      • Marco Gol

        Andrew, thank you for your thoughtful response. I am convinced Murray is right, and that God never uses or condones physical violence. Murray is a Trinitarian, Evangelical Universalist, and believes the lake of fire is healing in nature. (“God is love.” “God is a consuming fire.”)

        Would you also please consider this quote from Professor C.S. Cowles? Like Murray, he recognizes that the Scriptures are only part of a never-ending, progressive revelation of God’s goodness:

        In progressive revelation what we see is not God’s gradual self-disclosure in bits and pieces according some grand dispensational scheme, but rather is reflective of the human mediators’ growing understanding of his character, will, and gracious saving purposes in Scripture. Isaiah, for instance, saw into the mind and heart of God more clearly than Moses when he virtually dismisses the whole sacrificial system that Moses believed to have been instituted by God, instructions that are given in great detail in Exodus and Leviticus. In contradistinction to Israel’s entire temple-cult and priestly system, Isaiah asserts that God does not require “burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals,” and that he took “no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.” What the prophet sees anticipates the dramatically clearer revelation of God fleshed out in Jesus: namely, that God is not impressed by outward ritual but rather inward holiness of heart and life (see Isa. 1:11-18). We are closer to the truth if we see progressive revelation as a progressive understanding of revelation, a process that is still going on today as Scripture is read and studied in the company of God’s people.

        It is this very uncertainty about absolute truth that delivers us from the insufferable ‘arrogance of infallibility,’ that helps us to be humble in the claims we make about the Bible, and that keeps us dependent upon the Holy Spirit to “lead and guide us into all truth” (John 15:26), always looking to Jesus who alone is “the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:2).

        (The complete Cowles article, titled “Scriptural Inerrancy?” can be received as a .pdf file at http://www.pointloma.edu/sites/default/files/filemanager/Wesleyan_Center/excellent-way.pdf )