Bradley Cooper Embodies the Storied Version of Chris Kyle
DIRECTED BY CLINT EASTWOOD/2014
Was there a better trailer in 2014 thenAmerican Sniper’s initial pulse-hammering debut teaser? The silent, intense build up pulled us in straight away, suggesting the film would revolve around a snipers moral anxiety, and unfortunate consequential Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
For those that don’t know, American Sniper is based on the infamous Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, a four-tour servicemen with over 160 confirmed kills titling him the most lethal sniper in U.S. History. Kyle was honorably discharged in 2009, and during that time wrote a book on his experiences, entitled American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History. He was also widely revered for his assistance in working with veterans struggling with PTSD.
Now, I’ve read several chapters (a solid half), of Chris Kyle’s auto-biography from which the film is adapted. Explained in detail is his early life as a rancher, His recruitment into the BUD/s program (A program all SEALs must pass), his day to day job in Iraq inspecting (sometimes taking down) oil tankers trying to smuggle illegal items that violated international sanctions, and his experiences in Baghdad, Ramadi as well as his contribution during second battle of Fallujah. There’s also a fair amount of revealing personal information regarding his homelife with his family between each deployment.
American Sniper has sufficient thematic merit to keep it from resembling a mindless videogame, and scenes with enough emotional punch that hopefully some troops will find solace in.
From all my reading about him, plus the dozens of interviews I’ve dug up, here’s my opinion on Chris: On one hand, his embodiment of God, family and country values is extremely noble, and something to be admired. There’s honorable virtue in a man upholding the preservation of America’s traditional principles. So I do have a soft-spot for him. On the other hand, I’m a bit ambivalent towards his simplified, bible belting “rah rah” Texan black-and-white ideologues, especially in regards some of his sweeping generalizations of the entire Middle East population. But I’ve never been to the Middle East so I can’t really dispute whether they’re “all savages”, as Kyle calls them, or not. I understand that Kyle likely had a hardened view of the world. His entire employment is nearly based around facing, and killing the ugliest forms of terrorism.
But moreover, past the offensive statements and downright xenophobic outlook that permeate the first half of the book, Kyle seems to have a propensity to toot his own horn a bit, chiefly when it comes to petty bar fights over women. These segments really add nothing to the book, and most likely unknown to Kyle, cast him in a negative light as someone boastful, egocentric and obsessed with trivial, childish blowhard brawling. Yet he seems to apply all these traits to all SEALs and servicemen, as if they’re some inherent character trait of being a SEAL. And I don’t think all men who’ve served would agree with that. In fact, I’m sure a more sophisticated bunch would find it downright embarrassing. In Kyle’s world they’re two types of people: Badasses and pu*****. Guess which one he falls under? The are quite a lot of self-referential claims of as to Kyle being a “badass mother” in his autobiography.
Which leads me into even more controversy surrounding the legend. Kyle has been caught outright lying on a number of occasions. Most notoriously was the defamation lawsuit filed by Jesse Ventura. In the book, Kyle told a story where he (in a bar!) got confrontational with another military celebrity who had been bad mouthing America, the troops and president Bush. He then proceeded to teach him a bit of lesson. In Kyles words, he “laid him out” and claims the guy “ended up on the floor.” Kyle later confirmed the SEAL to be Ventura. After Kyle’s death, Ventura still pursued the high-profile lawsuit claiming it was a lie. Ventura ended up winning 1.8 Million in defamation.
In a separate story Kyle told, another SEAL and him sat atop the New Orleans Superdome after they’d been sent down by the Blackwater Security Firm to help with the Post-Katrina assistance. Kyle claims they shot and killed over 30 looters. All swept under the rug. And yet in another far-fetched story, Kyle was at a Texas gas station when two men tried to rob him. He shot them both dead and immediately afterwards contacted The Pentagon where he claims they recognized him as a SEAL, and thanked him for “keeping the streets clean.” Yet for both stories, there’s no bodies, no evidence or documentation, no nothing to prove that they even occurred. It seems Kyle had a habit of conceiving tall tales and making up stories, for whatever reason. The very fact that Kyle intentionally lied in his autobiography about the incident with Jesse Ventura, that was ruled out as having never happened, calls into question how much of his autobiography we should even believe.
But can I talk about how much I do like Kyle? Here’s the thing: Chris Kyle may not have been a perfect person, but his contributions to his country should never be dismissed. Chris Kyle did serve his country bravely. And most importantly, he was the best at what he was employed to do, his job (although he personally argued that he wasn’t the best sniper, only a decent one who just so happend to be given the most opportunities to kill. His personal hero was Marine Carlos Hathcock, who served in Vietnam and has a confirmed record of 93 kills.) I stand behind the man in every shot that he took, even if some of those shots may have involved innocents.
As a country, we grant soldiers a certain authority because we recognize that the choices they have to make are challenging and difficult. He’s taken out some real high-target threats, not only threats to us, but to his fellow comrades of which he had the utmost allegiance to. When Kyle returned home it wasn’t the hundreds of human lives he put an end to that haunted him, it was his fellow brother soldiers that he wasn’t able to save. There’s something poignant about his patriotism, even if some of it is falsely built around deluded conservative Christian fundamentalism and blind flag waving. It’s pretty disgusting to hear people call him a murderer, without being prepared to put their lives on the line, being his brothers keeper as he did. He’s a protector and defender in the truest sense of the word. I truly am fascinated by Chris, his imperfections included, which is why I was very excited to see Clint Eastwood’s film treatment of his life.
Bradley Cooper’s scarily on point performance as Kyle is about the only thing that anchors Eastwood’s politically and morally problematic film. Otherwise, this is another directorial semi-misfire from Eastwood, who seems to not have much interest other than exulting old-hat values and gung ho American exceptionalism. If anyone hopes Eastwoods’ American Sniper seriously focuses on PTSD they’ll surely be disappointed. Personally, I was looking for something that was a deconstruction of the American myth of what it means to be a soldier, a film that broke down the archetypal, Hollywood golden-era John Wayne-esque characters, and revealed that not every hero is some indestructible superhuman. In no way did I want to see the film villainize our protagonist, but I did want to see the real Chris Kyle, flaws and all.
What we get is a film undercutting some obvious and important themes, discounting a lot of potentially interesting subject matter, and most offensively, being completely dishonest in segments. In the book, Kyle makes the statement, “I don’t shoot people with Bibles. I’d like to, but I don’t.” However in the movie, after Cooper comes under judgment for making his own call on pulling the trigger, he tells his commanding officers, “I don’t know what a Quran looks like.” Some areas of the film grossly misrepresent who Kyle presented himself to be, for better or worse, in his book. He may very well have had a hateful agenda towards Muslims, even though he still earns and deserve a massive amount of respect for going out there and doing a job most of us wouldn’t. What’s sad is that Eastwood is whitewashing Chris, afraid to make him anything less than the perfect embodiment of heroism. Heck, the movie doesn’t even acknowledge the three previously stated proven false fabrications. The truth is lost somewhere in between.
There are portions of American Sniper however, that make it worth revisiting. This is a passion project for Cooper, his dedication never being anything less than a direct hit on target. Cracking at the seams and in denial about his mental scarring, a long-suffering and wounded Chris tries to uphold the same stoicism his father passed down to him through a metaphor about sheeps, wolves, and sheepdogs. His therapist ask, “You ever think that you might have seen things, or done some things over there that you wish you hadn’t?” Cooper replies, “Oh no, that’s not me.” When PTSD really does start to hit Chris, it’s all the more tragic because he’s been refusing to believe it’s been with him for so long. The poor guy has it bad, and he can’t admit it to himself, although he self-aware enough to know that he’s been affected by the war, carrying a mental anguish that he feels the need to save his brothers-in-arms from. Kyles PTSD and aiding his discharged comrades, are arguably more noteworthy than his confirmed kill count, I’d dispute at least. It’s unfortunate that Eastwood only dedicates the last fifteen minutes of the movie to these segments, and even then, only does he ever scratch the surface of the makings of what could have made “American Sniper” truly a resonating film above the rest. Most of Kyle’s heroics with vets on the homefront are bookended or omitted entirely.
It’s at least better than 2013’s Lone Survivor, another very interesting real life story based on real life hero Marcus Luttrell turned into a heavy handed, jingoistic Call of Duty-resembling picture that came troublingly close to glorifying war and fetishizing violence, and you don’t have to be a troop hating, America disrespecting scumbag to see that. But what can anyone expect when we have directors from such acclaimed works as Battleship directing our war films? The notion of someones service, suffering and trauma they’ve had to endure, becoming a form of throwaway entertainment is a real shame. Lone Survivor, the film, only perpetuates the myth that war is an action flick where you get to jump off rocks with your buddies while huge, theatrical looking explosions go off in the background making you look like pop-stars. No, American Sniper has sufficient thematic merit to keep it from resembling a mindless videogame, and scenes with enough emotional punch that hopefully some troops will find solace in. It also helps that the combat is realistically shot. Perhaps not as tastefully done as the incredibly authentic raid sequence in the 2012 procedural, neutral and apolitical near-masterpiece Zero Dark Thirty, but in no way is it trigger-happy, romanticized nonsense.
Perhaps whoever edited the teaser trailer for American Sniper would’ve done a better job directing and assembling the film. Eastwood is a passionless director. This is all the more unfortunate since it’s apparent this is a huge passion project for Cooper and nearly everyone that knew Chris. Clint has no intention of making an “art” film, only a movie. Like all his recent films, the delivery of the dialogue from his actors, with the exception of Cooper, is oddly stilted. Some of the actors spitting military lingo sound like early teens who’ve learned to curse for the first time, just cringeworthy and forced. Part of this reason for this is Eastwood’s unwillingness to shoot more than one take for each scene. I’m sure Warner Brothers is loving him for saving money on that front, but he never allows his cast to get some convincing back-and-forth rhythm going. The consequence of such neglectfulness on Eastwoods part is a horrible performance on behalf of Sienna Miller as Taya Kyle, Chris’ wife, who I’m sure is a good actress, but can’t generate any genuine emotion likely due to the expedited shooting schedule. And are audiences supposed to like her character? Her opening lines to a SEAL, before darting towards the exit to puke her guts out from alcohol over-exposure are “you’re a bunch of arrogant, self-centered pricks who think you can lie, cheat and do whatever the f*** you want.” Say what you will about this piece, whether readers find some of it offensive or not, I would never say anything that resembled such viciousness to a servicemen. Trust me, I’m forever grateful to live in a country that doesn’t behead my family, put a gun in my hand, and make me a soldier at a very early age.
“American Sniper” is an enjoyable, albeit frustrating experience. This is me at my most critical as a result of wanting to rave about this film. It’s a movie that’ll ruminate in my head for what it could’ve been, rather then what it turned out to be. If audiences were expecting a film focusing on PTSD they’re better off checking out Brothers (2009), The Messenger (2009), Jarhead (2005), and The Deer Hunter (1978). Someday they might make another Chris Kyle bio-pic, and it’ll be unfortunate that Bradley Cooper won’t be at the forefront of it. Chris Kyle was, without a doubt, a complex person. This is hardly a complex or challenging film, but it’s one worth seeing, if only to witness promising and brief snippets of what could’ve been an extraordinary film about one of America’s most extraordinary soldiers. In its boldest moments, it manages to capture what’s both honorable and dangerous about being persuaded by American myth.