Journalist Chris Hedges wrote in his 2002 novel War is the Force that Give Us Meaning that “the rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug, one I ingested for many years.” A truncated version of this quote was immortalized in Kathryn Bigelow’s Academy Award winning film The Hurt Locker, but Hedges words could have easily been applied to American Sniper as well. While the former dealt with a bomb expert, who is physically one snip away from death, the latter focuses on a sniper who works best from a distance. Their skill sets may be different, but both tasks require a great deal of patience, and a certain amount of bravado. These are key assets that Sergeant First Class William James, Jeremy Renner’s temperamental hero from Bigelow’s film, and Sniper’s Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) have in spades.
They are not only cowboys, in regards to how they approach their jobs on the battlefield, although Kyle actually had a brief stint on the rodeo circuit, but also junkies. Addicts hooked on a war that they believe will fall apart without them.
In Clint Eastwood’s taut observation of the impact of war on the human condition, the adrenaline of a shootout is not as intoxicating as the shower of praise that comes when the battle is done for the day. Eastwood’s sensitive lens explores the life of Navy Seal marksmen Chris Kyle, considered the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history, who amassed 160 confirmed kills during his four tours in Iraq. From a young age Kyle was seen as a person who possessed that rare instinct that allowed him to fight for those, take his bullied brother for example, in need of saving. This desire to help others led him to join the Navy Seals at age thirty. Viewed as the most “arrogant self-centered pricks” in the military, or at least that is how Kyle’s future wife Taya (Sienna Miller) describes them upon their initial meeting, the Navy Seals seem like a direct contrast to the picture of the good old Texan boy that Eastwood’s film paints.
It is only when Kyle is deployed to Iraq for his first tour, shortly after the events of 9/11, that it becomes clear that his greatest weakness is his own arrogance. After racking up 26 confirmed kills, which is more than his fellow snipers combined, and being nicknamed “The Legend” by the Marines he is assigned to work with, Kyle slowly begins to subconsciously buy into his own hype. Perched in his sniper’s position like a guardian angel overseeing his flock, Kyle takes great pride in his work and the perks it affords him. While he may down play the whole legend status amongst his peers, it is clear he enjoys being seen as the best.
The fact that Kyle does not even break a sweat when he learns that enemy forces have placed a large bounty on his head is further proof of this. As his military reputation continues to grow with each deployment, Kyle finds it difficult to adapt to life away from the Iraq War. Returning home in-between tours, and displaying increasingly growing signs of PTSD, Kyle becomes more and more distant from his family.
Clint Eastwood’s film offers a fascinating examination of how the quest for glory can be a dangerous drug in itself. Like a true addict, Kyle is so hooked on heroism that he is unable to see the almost robot like machine he has become. Cooper’s stoic and measured performance perfectly captures Kyle’s slow mental descent. He may claim to be concerned about the lives of his fellow troops, but Kyle does not know how to cope with either their injuries or deaths. He blames their demise not on the war, but rather the soldier’s own mental weakness. For acknowledging their deaths as anything else would be to admit the brutally harsh reality of war. An act that would ultimately burst the heroic bubble that Kyle has encased himself in.
This is why his moments with Taya are so integral to the narrative. In American Sniper, Kyle’s time at home, interspersed like chapter breaks to cleanse the action palette, is more nightmarish than being on the battlefield. Home represents an emasculated landscape where its inhabitants only care about their cell phones and are oblivious to the great strife that exists in the world outside of their own. It is a place in which one only dreams about being a hero, but rarely gets to actually be one.
This is a stark contrast to the tense action sequences in Iraq, were Kyle is a glorified god. Eastwood emphasizes this nicely in a sequence where Taya calls Kyle, on his privately issue cell phone no less, just as his platoon gets ambushed in the streets. As bullets fly, and Kyle leaps into action, his confused wife is left to listen to the unfolding events in horror. Though the Marines may have the Punisher logo on their vehicles, Eastwood ensures that he never lets that action reach a cartoonish level. Unlike his previous films, Eastwood leaves behind the poetic approach in favor of capturing the intense nature of war zones. Bullets whiz through the air like darts racing towards a board, often picking off their targets before the men even realize their fates are sealed. Whether Kyle is setting his sights on a target 1900 yards out, minutes away from being engulfed in a sand storm, or trying to evade a rival sniper who has him pinned down, each action sequence Eastwood crafts is more thrilling than the next.
At times American Sniper wants to be everything to everyone – a celebration of a man’s life, a tense action film, a commentary of the mental causalities of war, and an exploration of addiction. While Eastwood does an admirable job, all thing considered, there are moments when American Sniper, for all its craft, drifts dangerously close to being American propaganda.
This is most noticeable in the way American Sniper struggles to establish true villains. Since war and heroism are the narcotics, the film has no central drug dealer to speak of to place the blame on. The U.S. government and military brass are practically non-existent in the film, which only leaves the Taliban. Unfortunately, Eastwood falls into the trap of reducing the “enemy” to nothing more than thinly constructed stereotypes. Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), the skilled Syrian gold medalist sniper, does nothing but hop from building to building killing people. There is nothing that truly establishes his “best versus best” rivalry with Kyle. The same can be said for “The Butcher” (Mido Hamada), a top level Taliban henchman who uses a drill as his method of choice. For all the care and grace Eastwood uses in his portrayal of Kyle, it is a disheartening that he reduces the villains to one-note characters that are commonly found in 80’s action films.
Despite its occasional shortcomings, American Sniper is a solid and complex celebration of a man who saved lives, but lost sight of himself in the process. Chris Kyle’ heroism was both his greatest gift and his biggest curse.