Director Clint Eastwood has crafted a fitting tribute to those who have put their lives on the line in the name of freedom for the homeland. But don’t expect complete historical accuracy.
To set the stage right from the first frames, the movie begins during a U.S. military mission in Fallujah. An American sniper is on a rooftop overlooking a battered roadway, his eye trained on the nearby buildings: rooftops, doorways, windows. Who is the target? Is there a target? The man looking hurried as he talks on his cell phone? The woman in a burka? What about the little boy accompanying her?
The whole time, the sniper’s finger caresses the trigger. It’s a high-stress situation of split-second decision making. Shoot the wrong person and riots, along with other troubles, will ensue. Miss a target and the lives of fellow soldiers are on the line.
That sniper is Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook), America’s deadliest sniper with more than 160 kills to his credit. His is most certainly a unique story and the movie backs up from that tense rooftop scene to Chris’ Texas roots and upbringing.
In short, a strict father – who encourages his two sons to “finish it” when they encounter problems with bullies – and a family interest in hunting are the baseline, along with a deeply-rooted sense of patriotism. In the aftermath of 9/11, it’s an uncommon sense of duty that draws 30-year-old Chris into the recruitment office and from there a Navy SEAL legend is born.
American Sniper serves as an eloquent look at the unsettled, disrupted lives of American soldiers. In this case, as consolidated and refashioned by screenwriter Jason Hall based on Chris Kyle’s autobiography, the action follows Chris through four tours of duty, hotly in pursuit of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and al Qaeda’s own ace sniper, a man dubbed The Butcher. Between recruitment and tours, Chris gets married and has two children.
Through his tours of duty, Chris’ sharpshooter accuracy comes to the forefront and his veneration as a hero morphs into full-blown legend status. Surely such talk is enough to mess with any individual’s mind and ego, so the book and the movie both need to be taken with a grain of salt.
Kyle’s book has come under fire for various pieces of content that are counter to the humble, extremely reserved man portrayed in the movie. The book’s accuracy has been challenged particularly by former wrestling star Jesse “The Body” Ventura, who won a defamation suit against Kyle’s estate last summer in regard to a passage in the book in which Kyle claimed he punched out a celebrity for making derogatory comments about soldiers. It was during the media blitz for the book that Kyle revealed the celebrity was Ventura.
Lives of any great historical significance are rarely, if ever, lived without controversy seeping out somewhere. T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, and his exploits during World War I are still studied and debated to this day. In any event, his story was the basis for a cinematic masterpiece.
The same can be said of The Bridge on the River Kwai. That movie bears strikingly little resemblance to the sheer horrors of the real Thai-Burma Railway, perhaps better known as the Death Railway, but it’s a highly-acclaimed movie based on its own storytelling merits.
More recently, even Zero Dark Thirty threw in some oddness with a freaky reference to Area 51 as the top secret meeting place to plot the mission to eradicate the world of Osama bin Laden.
Creative license, the expedience of merging several real people into one character, the need to heighten the mission status by way of introducing other high-profile names into the mix; this is all familiar territory in Hollywood.
The important thing is the movie works on its own merits.
It is another case of a historically-based movie needing to be taken on its own terms.
Eastwood whittles the story down to the tightrope balancing act between soldier and family man and at times it feels like a homecoming for Eastwood as well, returning to the themes of the western movies of yore. The culture clashes of cowboys and Indians, the stoicism of the Man With No Name, the sense of duty and honor, all transposed to the Wild Wild East.
American Snipe’s portrayal of the unsettled life of a soldier is moving and tense. At home, in relative peace, the blood pressure runs high while sitting still. The noise of the battlefield rings between the ears, even while staring at a blank TV screen. Thoughts drift to those back in the war zone thousands of miles away rather than focusing on the family in the home zone right in front of him.
On that level, and in the intense portrayal of sniper duty while in active combat situations, the movie works as a standalone experience. And Bradley Cooper, quite deserving of his Academy Award nomination here, gets lost in the role; chunky in girth and chubby in the face, he is at times unrecognizable.
And, when it comes time to present the final chapter of Chris’ life on screen, Eastwood refers back to the real thing. Photos of the real man, the real family and the real memorial need have no substitute.