American Sniper succeeds in paying homage to a true American hero, Chris Kyle, who is portrayed by Bradley Cooper in his Best Actor, Oscar-nominated role. The movie itself has also been nominated for an Oscar. Regarded as the deadliest sniper in U.S. history with at least 160 confirmed kills, Cooper’s character vividly shows the nightmarish circumstances, and the devastating long-term impact that comes with prolonged exposure to war. After a slow start, somewhat burdened by telling a lengthy backstory, Kyle’s journey picks up once he begins his first of four tours as a U.S. Navy SEAL. Read at your own risk as major spoilers are included in this American Sniper review.
Kyle is a Texas-raised cowboy who was floundering in his late-20s. Blessed with a strong shot ever since his youthful hunting days with his father, combined with an aggressive, macho mindset implemented by his father during childhood, Kyle decides to pursue a higher calling as a result of his skills and mentality. This move is also inspired by an impassioned patriotism in Kyle’s psyche. Once he enlists and chooses the sniper route, Kyle begins his brutally grueling training regimen. Subjected to psychological and physical hardships, Kyle and his fellow trainees are truly put through the ringer. Every ounce of their being is tested.
A hardened, relentless figure is the result of this training. It’s around this time when Kyle meets Taya in a bar, his eventual wife and mother of his two children. Taya’s played with grace by a committed Sienna Miller. To Kyle’s credit, despite his harrowing training and negative traits acquired through his upbringing, he maintains a warmth and charm. This is what wins Taya over in the face of her previously negative opinion of Navy SEALS. American Sniper‘s beginnings are a touch slow. We learn background, see training, and meet Taya. Everything picks up once this groundwork is put down.
Kyle’s first kill is a difficult one. A woman and her presumed child are carrying some sort of grenade. Forced to make the call on his own, Kyle delivers a shot to the child. When the woman picks up the grenade, Kyle gives her the same fate. His spotter is impressed, and his commander offers praise through Kyle’s earpiece, but Cooper’s character is understandably shaken. As we learn later, he didn’t envision his first kill going down in this matter. He didn’t enlist to kill children. Soon enough though, Kyle overcomes this sadness and becomes a grim reaper with a rifle in hand.
That’s the route the movies goes. Kyle continues killing, his men continue pursuing difficult missions, and dangerous savages are always the prime targets. Two of his best friends, Marc and Biggles, are killed along the way by a vicious opposing sniper named Mustafa. Marc’s death is especially traumatic to the audience given the sheer horror and immediacy of it. He speaks to Kyle one moment, he’s shot in the head the next. As American Sniper reveals in a profoundly moving manner, such is the reality of war. Biggles is shot in the face in another powerfully sad moment, but he doesn’t die as quickly as Marc. However, during a later surgery, we’re also informed of his passing.
Motivated by a commitment to protect his country and his fellow men, Kyle finds a new source of drive: to kill the opposing sniper tormenting his soldiers. This need for completion is part of why Kyle continues to accept new tours. He’s also in hot pursuit of “The Butcher,” an incredibly savage, coldly-designed criminal who murders a child with a drill during a scene of pure agony. We don’t see this act performed in its entirety, but we hear the child’s screams, which are accompanied by the drill’s sound, that will haunt Kyle forever. But failing to kill the hated sniper, Mustafa, on the other end would’ve haunted him even more.
Kyle eventually succeeds in this mission of ridding Mustafa. While many of his friends have been killed or elected to stay home, Kyle kills his prime enemy from a remarkable distance, one described as 2,100 yards away in the movie. “The Butcher” may have been too elusive for capture, but no distance was going to keep Kyle from eliminating his evil counterpart. They are two men of the same skillset only differentiating in clashing ideologies. This fatal shot puts Kyle and his comrades at risk as an incalculable number of enemies zero in, following the sound of the kill shot. During this chaos, Kyle calls his wife, telling her he’s finally ready to come home. He’s nearly killed in the process and barely escapes with his life.
Kyle’s repeated dances with the devil somehow avoid death over his four tours. During his early days back home, he remains tormented by atrocities seen and screams heard during duty, a natural form of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) that many returning/returned soldiers suffer from. This creates a blockade that even Taya and his children can’t penetrate. Eventually, Kyle comes to relative terms with his trauma, successfully letting his guard down to his family in the process. He becomes a dedicated father and even offers his aid to former soldiers in need. As we learn in the closing moments of American Sniper, despite cheating death and emerging as a hero during battle, Kyle is killed in his home country by a misled solider he attempted to help. Tragic. No other way to describe it.
American Sniper leaves me with an appreciation to those who serve in the military. Often misunderstood or disregarded when returning home, it’s remarkable what they experience and the heroism they perform. That said, the audience is left with a critically important question. Given the current crisis in the Middle East after our intervention, all the soldiers who perished, and the immense cost poured into these military efforts, was entering this part of the world worth it? For all American Sniper viewers, that’s a question worth pondering.