‘American Sniper’, a gripping movie that fails to capture its subject

The film “American Sniper” has drawn both praise and scorn for its depiction of real life military hero Chris Kyle, who had 160 confirmed kills during his four tours of duty in Iraq. After seeing the movie several weeks ago, I was left with the nagging suspicion that “American Sniper”, while expertly filmed and produced, would have been met with mixed feelings by one man who will never have the chance to see it—Chris Kyle.

Having read a large portion of Kyle’s book of the same name, I was left wondering exactly who this man on screen, as portrayed by actor Bradley Cooper, is actually based on. In the movie, during his first tour of duty in Iraq, Kyle hesitates before killing a woman and a young boy, and is visibly shaken by the experience. In another scene, he allows a young man to pick up and point a rocket propelled grenade at advancing American troops, hoping against hope that the kid will throw it down and run before he’s forced to kill him.

Scenes like these suggest that Kyle had some basic, gut level concerns about taking human lives, especially those of women and children. It allows the viewer to sympathize with the character, to feel a sense of connection with a man struggling to reconcile his conscience with his patriotic duty.

But the Chris Kyle presented in Clint Eastwood’s film has virtually nothing to do with the man who describes himself in his book, in his own words, this way: “I loved what I did, I still do … I’m not lying or exaggerating to say it was fun.”

Bradley Cooper, who does a fine job with a one-note script, never comes close to portraying a man who would make a game out of killing human beings. In one of the more disturbing passages in Kyle’s book, he describes how, when a fellow sniper began to threaten his “legendary” kill number, Kyle “all of the sudden” seemed to have “every stinkin’ bad guy in the city running across my scope.”

The movie is so full of distortions and invented scenarios that it ends up telling us very little about the real Chris Kyle. Among its other made up set pieces, the movie rewrites history by letting viewers believe Kyle signed up for the military because of the 9/11 terrorist attacks; that he tracked down and killed an enemy sniper named Mustafa, taking him out with an impossible mile-long rooftop shot; that he and his team members then battled their way off that rooftop after being surrounded and outnumbered by enemy fighters. None of this happened.

Strangely enough, despite his willingness to play with the truth when it serves his dramatic purposes, Eastwood completely ignores the bizarre fictions that Kyle apparently felt compelled to make up after returning home. In one tale, Kyle claimed he killed two carjackers at a gas station southwest of Dallas, and that his driver’s license directed local police officers who questioned him to contact the Department of Defense. Kyle also claimed he traveled to post-Katrina New Orleans with a sniper friend, set up his gun atop the Superdome, and picked off as many as 30 armed looters. If true, this last claim would suggest that both men were not only deranged, but also candidates for the death penalty.

Unfortunately, Kyle’s publishers let one of those fantastic tales, about a fictitious run-in with fellow Navy SEAL and former Minnesota Governor Jessie Ventura, make it to print. That mistake will likely cost his widow millions of dollars in settlement money.

Kyle’s own accounting of his life appears to have been as full of fantasy and unverifiable occurrences as Eastwood’s movie. In the end, we’re left with the 160 kills and the sad circumstances of Kyle’s demise, shot dead by a fellow veteran he was attempting to help.

For me, the most frustrating part of watching “American Sniper” was that there was clearly a more interesting movie just beneath the surface, just waiting for a director with the guts to dig deeper.

What sacrifices—mental, moral, and physical—are required in order to allow an individual to kill fellow human beings without emotion? What kind of people do Americans chose as their heroes, and why? Those are questions Eastwood could have explored. That the man who directed and starred in one of the finest movies to ever ask those very questions, the revisionist Western “Unforgiven”, chose to take the easy, less controversial route is understandable but disappointing all the same.

As a movie about a fictitious war veteran struggling to serve both his country and his family, “American Sniper” is emotionally gripping, well acted, and suspenseful. As a movie about a complex man named Chris Kyle, who portrayed himself as a shallow, unfeeling narcissist, it’s an abysmal failure.

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