Perhaps the most difficult thing for a film critic is to separate emotion from evaluation. I’m no Ebert – quite far from it. But there are times when that point of separation is difficult not to cross. Having grown up deep in red state territory, patriotism and unwavering love of country – “my America, right or wrong” – is deeply embedded in my psyche. But having been educated at Dartmouth and having lived in New England and Europe I have, over time, developed a healthy skepticism for the politics that define just what ‘my America’ really means.
And thus begins my difficulty in discussing the most popular movie in the country at the moment: “American Sniper”. If you have been hiding under a rock for the past few weeks, this film presents the real life story of Chris Kyle, the most ‘successful’ sniper in the history of the armed forces, serving four tours in Iraq. Kyle joined the Navy at a relatively advanced age; moved rapidly through training as a Navy Seal; and thanks to his preternatural marksmanship, became a renowned sniper, providing ‘overwatch’ to Marines and other ground forces fighting the insurgency in Iraq and earning the nickname ‘The Legend’. He was officially credited with 160 confirmed and over 250 probable kills. Kyle had a deep, spiritual belief in the legitimacy of his role as a protector of American soldiers, and continued to return to Iraq against the wishes of his wife and family. After his fourth tour, Kyle ultimately returned; and after struggling with PTSD, began to find recovery in assisting other veterans. The tragedy is that this recovery led to Kyle’s death at the hands of a mentally ill former Marine he was helping.
“American Sniper” is an exceptional film in many ways. A true collaboration between director Clint Eastwood and actor Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle, the movie presents a realistic, harrowing and provocative picture of war as it is mostly fought today – by heavily armed and questionably prepared young men and women volunteers fighting in urban jungles against radical indigenous insurgencies. Some may say that the film ‘takes sides’ – that it focuses on Kyle and his Seal Team compatriots’ deep faith in the mission with little consideration for the legitimacy of that mission. But I would disagree. I think that Eastwood offers an appropriate balance between the hyper-patriots represented by the Seals and the scared, shell shocked, please-get-me-out-alive grunts.
Furthermore, ‘American Sniper’ offers an outstanding depiction of the contradiction between the deep commitment, loyalty and ethic of dedicated soldiers and the toll that commitment takes on their families – and ultimately on the soldiers themselves. Kyle’s wife, Taya, as played by Sienna Miller, is the touchstone for those left behind. She does her best to hold down the fort at home, raise a family with an absentee father, support her husband doing a job she does not understand and, finally, helping him heal from the psychological wounds that are, in many ways, worse than the physical wounds of many of his peers. Her conflict, suffering and rage are so well done and nuanced that her exclusion from the nominations for Best Supporting Actress is a crime.
But ultimately, this film belongs to Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle. Transforming from vagabond Texas cowboy, to committed patriot, to unflinching killing machine, to broken warrior and finally to reconciled father and veteran’s counselor, Cooper offers a complex and thoughtful portrayal of today’s military. I have commented previously in this column about the difference between creating the character of a real, historic person and just imitating that person. Cooper creates a realistic, believable and empathetic portrayal of someone that many of us will not be able to easily understand – but need to. We demand safety, security and, in many cases, vengeance. But do we understand the nature and the impact of the work that must be undertaken by the people who we ask to meet that demand? Cooper offers insight into that nature, and shows the ultimate impact of the dirty work involved.
I do not say that you must admire – or even understand – Cooper’s Chris Kyle. I do say that you cannot claim a legitimate point-of-view without considering his life, and the lives of men and women like him. ‘American Sniper’ is one way of achieving that consideration. For most moviegoers, I believe that this is one of those films where your opinion coming out will be determined by your politics going in. If that is the case, you have missed an opportunity. Regardless, this is a film determined to provoke.