If you are a fan of this rather famous and polarizing movie, I advise you not to read my review. It will seem too much like a personal attack. Some people will look at my F grade and think I’m spitting in the face of war veterans who have sacrificed their lives (and usually sanity) to protect their families, friends, and strangers back home. I do not wish for it to be seen that way. Back when this movie was hot out of the oven, that’s the sort of atmosphere it brought along, when I first saw it and rewarded it the same grade in disgust. Well, wanting to republish but also wanting to see if my view may have changed, I watched my least favourite movie of 2015 again, and believe it or not, I was open to possibly lessening my hatred and giving it a somewhat higher grade. Critics can be in rough moods sometimes, you know? And in the end, though I take back one thing negative I said, none of the many things wrong with the biographical war drama of former U.S. Navy Seal Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper) were any better when I went back in with a desire to dilute my cynicism.
Kyle’s dad Wayne once gave a rather noteworthy kitchen table talk to him and his younger brother Charlie after Charlie came home with a bruised face and Chris revealed he stepped in and really knocked the stuffing out of his schoolyard bully. To Wayne, there are three types of people; wolves, sheep, and sheepdogs. Wolves are those who pray on the sheep, and the sheep are who need help when darkness descends on their doorstep. He brings out his belt to show the penalty for being his son and a sheep. Sheepdogs are those protecting the sheep from the wolves. Wayne has no qualms about his son beating the bully within an inch of his life. (I understand this thinking. I’ve been bullied and have wanted to fight back against those who have wronged me. Main reason I wrote my first book. But not every bully deserves his or her tongue slashed off before possible compromise, explanation, and forgiveness.) Chris is raised being told he has a way with guns and shooting them, and this superiority complex leads him to be proud of his ability to resort to violence to have his way.
At a bar one night after qualifying as a SEAL after some laborious and pride-challenging training, he meets the feisty Taya (Sienna Miller) and despite her saying she’d never marry a SEAL, Chris captivates her enough for her to clarify before he has a chance to leave, saying she never said she wouldn’t date one. Right after their marriage, Chris ends up called for his first tour, and as he kills several people and saves several of his partners, his reputation gets higher as a hero among the SEALs and monster among the places he invades. And his wife and growing family get more and more concerned for how many times he goes back into the ring after narrow death escapes, having developed a sort of obsession for being a Navy sheepdog. Taya one night asks Chris if he desires being dead. He says no, but she, and we, aren’t so sure.
What I take back from the review I published six years ago on my old site is my commentary on Bradley Cooper’s performance. I thought at the time it felt phoney and anemic. But he’s actually good and believable as the late Kyle. If I hated this film at the time so much I dissed a performance I now say is decent, surely that must mean I first went in ready to hate, right? Wrong. All I knew about Kyle’s story going in was his fate, some of his accomplishments, and a quote in a book I read saying he knew the people he was killing were people but he had to think of the war as an us-or-them sitch where he had to protect those serving with him, and that fascinating inner conflict was what drew me to this movie. Well, almost immediately into it, I found that inner conflict may have not actually been on his mind, whether we’re talking about the movie’s Chris Kyle or the real thing.
All it takes is a simple internet search and you can see the real Chris Kyle was a fair bit different from the film version. The actual Kyle was outspoken in his beliefs all Iraqis were savages, and he felt great, even grateful, when he had the chance to end their lives. He expressed he wished he could shoot people with the Koran. That sort of attitude displays more of a desire to target the enemy than to protect the ally, but the military’s priority should be protecting their own, right? Cooper’s version of Kyle really doesn’t want to kill a kid no more than eight years old in the middle of the gunfire, who considers picking up an RPG and shooting it at his brothers. Cooper’s Kyle secretly begs the kid to put the gun down so he won’t have to kill him. An honest depiction of the character would have killed the kid just for looking at the RPG in fascination. But even if they chose to display Kyle in the way he truly was, even if that would’ve made me at least respect the movie, I don’t think it would’ve done much to curb the movie’s toxic and unfair behaviour endorsements.
There are a few mentions as to why Chris ended up a SEAL (though in real life he knew the navy was his goal for ages). We see him, while drunk, witness on TV the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings, 9/11 three years later, and some killing of an American we don’t get to know. Apart from the violence he brings upon himself, those are the only reasons we get for Kyle wanting to go. I’m far from implying those were not horrible tragedies. I would never say 9/11 wasn’t horrifying, not in a million years. But we could’ve been given a way more personal reason for Kyle to devote his life to the war. We were at a point in cinema, now and back in 2014, when those events were no longer grounds on their own for the adamant commitment towards leaving your loved ones for questionable battle. We could’ve had a childhood home invasion. We could’ve had a family member who got killed. We could’ve had emphasis on the fear Chris’ younger brother felt at the mercy of the school bully. It’s clear the filmmakers had artistic license since they greatly fictionalized Kyle’s true personality. They had the right to make stuff up, so they had the right to make us feel a lot more sympathy to Kyle’s cause than the movie thinks we do.
Director Clint Eastwood, who I admire for the name he’s made of himself and in the progression of cinema, has had more than his toes dipped in war movies. Among others, he directed two war films about the Battle of Iwo Jima (unseen by me), Japanese soldiers against American ones, and he depicted one side in one movie and the other side in the other, letting us decide which side was in the right in a fascinating way. But it’s not surprising to me there was never a companion piece to Sniper about the deadliest Iraq enemy these soldiers face. If there were, the backlash towards that film would’ve been insurmountable. Presenting a film about Japanese soldiers defending against Americans is far from the same when it’s Middle Easterners, especially due to the fact their vilification in Western cinema is deeply normalized, as the culture most antagonized in all of cinema. You can call me a fool if you desire, but when I see violence in wars, I imagine being born to parents living in that country. I picture growing up scared to close my eyes, to express my desires, even to walk outside my door, dirty and starving and probably grieving over a family member’s remorseless slaying from an infiltrating military. I’ve been hurt in my life, and I’ve hated those who’ve hurt me, so much so that the thought of turning into someone who would hurt another the same way makes me absolutely sick. I call people who disregard the lives of those they hurt, bully or traumatize as fools. There’s a sniper on the opposing side who gives Chris a run for his money, and we amazingly actually don’t hate him because he gives the protagonists a decent challenge and keeps the conflict semi-interesting. There’s nothing that makes us actually want to root against him.
Several of the action scenes include an energetic drum solo, as the Americans display their superiority (and probably excitement, to coincide with the music) shooting up residents daring to get in their way. This drum solo plays when a car drives up to a tank and half a dozen soldiers relentlessly shoot it like Bonnie and Clyde’s car. And I thought an early scene with Kyle in training and the Seal trainer singling out the only black trainee and said trainee swallowing his pride and saying he’s a different black was a tasteless depiction.
There’s a scene where a house is taken over, and the owner of the house asks if they want to have dinner with him. You know, to get rid of some of the tension. First time I saw it, I thought, “Implausible, but this could maybe be okay.” Then it’s revealed the owner has weaponry stashed, and he ends up not only shot by the seals without second thoughts, but he’s shot after picking up a gun while he knows well and clear he’s in the line of fire, rather than just putting his hands up and living another day for his wife and son. But being thoughtless is not the worst thing. The movie ends up sending the message anyone in enemy territory isn’t trustworthy. Maybe that’s a useful message on the battlefield, but in a movie, it also acts as an excuse to paint all from the Middle East as guilty until proven innocent through the nose. Kyle asks a SEAL hesitant about the whole thing if he’d want the same things to happen in San Diego or New York, presenting an overused message of fear that forces inflammatory compliance without even a chance to hear an opposing view that could potentially spare lives on both sides of the conflict. Most of my complaints aren’t from the probably honest take about how military soldiers feel. It’s the refusal to look at further layers and the other side of the fight that really terrorizes the feature. Some will say this is a movie prioritizing the lives of soldiers on the battlefield and further layers as to why they’re there are irrelevant. Are they? 9/11 caused Muslims worldwide to be the poster figures for hate, causing so many to be attacked and killed with everyone turning away from their pleas of mercy, even though the ones who orchestrated 9/11 were not actual Muslims and practically no Muslims would have wanted what happened to the Twin Towers to happen to anyone. The Iraq War was started from fear rather than logic, Iraq not originally having anything to do with 9/11, and we watch the American soldiers constantly kill people doing the same thing they would’ve done if the countries were in reverse positions, with no discussion or second thought as to that obvious reality.
So, I can see this review is getting pretty political and is talking primarily about its values. So what else is there to criticize? Kyle’s companions on the front lines are neither sympathetic nor interesting. Because we aren’t given enough time to get to know them, none of their deaths hold any gravity. We are told too much of, instead of shown, Taya’s breakdown. She talks about how the father of their kids is never around, and I desired visual storytelling on that front. Okay, Chris and his team celebrate when their first child is a boy. That’s how some men react. Before that, Taya says “I hope you’re right” in response to Chris saying his instinct is it will be a boy. I just have to ask. What is so wrong with your firstborn being a daughter?
The first time I saw the picture, I hated it to the point where I was looking forward to Kyle’s (spoilers) cathartic death. What was going through my head was seeing him die would bring us a shot of sympathy to wonder if he deserved it and give Bradley Cooper a chance to perform as someone knowing he just got back to his family and was never going to see them again. I figured a hateful movie could at least go out on a high note. But it never arrives. I heard the real Taya Kyle didn’t want the scene put in, but without it, the movie as a result, maybe inadvertently, displays such pridefulness in Chris Kyle that they didn’t want to show him gunned down to avoid the illusion that he lost, to prevent others who want to join the military from backing down seeing his bloodied lost-the-fight body. For me it was a wimp-out, after all the deaths the movie is happy to show us of the hooded mysterious stupid Iraqis.
Smug yet hollow, and hypocritical while being too prideful to properly admit it, a bunch of wolves in sheepdog clothing if you may, as evidenced by a woman being completely unemotionally called the b word by one of them, and turning a blind eye to boatloads of obvious subject matter that could question their actions, American Sniper seems to try to paint “warriors” as regular people wanting to do what they think’s right, but it ends up catapulting right into the opposite line of fire and turns those supporting the American flag as evidence for why there will always be division and hatred among differing cultures. As evidenced by my passionate dislike and others’ adamant support, American Sniper at least definitely succeeds at encouraging discussion. It’s just too bad a lot of it was encouraged because of what its carelessness could and did provoke.
If you like this, I’d try Saving Private Ryan, and I would make sure you know Kyle’s personal quotes and other accounts of those in the Iraq War to give you a completely informed opinion of if his actions (and beliefs) should be seen as celebratory.