Who is Chris Kyle? According to the marketing for this film (and the book it’s based on), he was the deadliest sniper this country has ever produced, nailing more than 160 targets during four tours of duty in the misconceived Iraq War launched in 2003. But after watching director Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, in which a bulked-up and almost unrecognizable Bradley Cooper portrays Kyle, I don’t know anything about the man inside the uniform except that he kept returning almost robotically to the front for reasons undefined. Even that distinction cited above — about having the most kills — is mentioned almost casually at some late moment in the movie.
When we first meet Kyle, it’s in the middle of one of the movie’s battle scenes: he’s got his sight trained on an Iraqi mother and son, and it’s up to him to decide whether to pull the trigger before they possibly attack the convoy at the other end of the street. It’s a moment that you expect to set the tone for the rest of the film, as we imagine the psychological damage that pointing a gun at a woman and child under any circumstances might inflict on even the most patriotic mind.
But that scene — which we return to later — is pretty much all we get along those lines. After flashing back to his youth, where we see young Chris being taught how to hunt by his dad and becoming a crack shot early on, we next see him in a job as a rodeo rider, his life clearly without any particular purpose and ripe for his decision to join the military and become a Navy SEAL. He meets and marries Taya (Sienna Miller), watches the horror of 9/11 on their TV and soon finds himself in Iraq, courageously and unwavering doing his job.
And that’s how it goes for American Sniper from that point on. Aside from that one sequence with the mother and boy – and another similar one a little later – most of the time we spend with Kyle is in the midst of battles that are, while well-staged, more or less the same kind of warfare we’ve seen in films like The Hurt Locker or Green Zone. The movie turns into a tension-free, rather flat cycle of Kyle in battle, Kyle returning home, Taya complaining/crying that she wants her husband back, Kyle reacting stoically and returning to the Middle East. It’s a repetitive structure and Eastwood appears to have no desire to shake it up.
Miller does what little she can with a one-dimensional stock character, and we barely get to know any of the other men in Kyle’s platoon before they are killed or he is cycled back home again. Cooper himself fully embodies at least the surface aspects of Kyle with his intimidating size, his initial charm and a deep Texas drawl, but we get so little insight into the inner workings of the man for most of the film’s 130-minute running time that we have no emotional or moral attachment to what we’re watching onscreen.
And then there’s the baby. In a couple of scenes that are sure to become infamous, Kyle is home and seen holding and tending to the Kyles’ infant child – which is clearly a rubber doll (there are crying sounds dubbed on the soundtrack). The doll’s arms hang limply at its sides as Cooper/Kyle holds it, and there’s even a moment where he pretends to be playing with the thing by using his hand to make its arm move. It’s embarrassing and distracting, and indicative of the greater problem with the film – that it’s almost mechanically and offhandled crafted, a problem with several of Eastwood’s more recent pictures.
During the last 15 or 20 minutes of the movie, Kyle finally returns home and we get a very quick glimpse of him dealing with his PTSD – including one of the few striking scenes where he meets a fellow vet who says that Kyle saved his life at some long-forgotten battle scene. The man is obviously moved to meet our hero, but it’s an uncomfortable moment in which all a bottled-up Kyle can do is grunt “Okay.” Yet two short scenes later, he’s smiling and happy and playing with his kids, PTSD apparently all better now.
Then in a decision which seems to have infected several biopics this year (see my forthcoming review of Unbroken for more on this), the closing titles reveal Kyle’s ultimate fate. It’s not a spoiler: he was shot and killed by a vet he was trying to help with getting his life back together. There are video clips showing the vast turnout for the real Kyle’s funeral (which took place earlier this year), which leads us to wonder why and how all these people had this attachment to him. I would like to see the story of a man who became a killing machine for his country – saving the lives of untold numbers of American soldiers in the process – how that affected him, how he overcame it, and how, in the form of another wounded warrior, that war came back to eventually claim him anyway. But American Sniper is sadly not that movie.
This article was originally published on December 22, 2014.