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Film Review: "American Sniper"

One man's war


The picture begins with a sniper in position on a rooftop in Iraq, looking through his scope first at a young man, then at a woman and a child, questioning over his radio whether he should take the shot. The response, "Your call," provides no guidance, so that in this situation and throughout the movie, the sniper must make his own choices about killing his target, not an abstract bull's eye, but an actual, flesh-and-blood human being. Those decisions govern the character and the life of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), the title character of "American Sniper," based on the book about the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history.

The movie than flashes back to some scenes of Kyle's youth in Texas, showing the boy learning to hunt and shoot and hearing the stern lessons of his father about the sort of man he must become. As a young man he competes in rodeos and likes to think of himself as a cowboy; he changes his generally aimless life when he sees news coverage of 1998 U.S. embassy bombings on television. Like a lot of young men of that time, he decides to enlist, joining the Navy and embarking on the rugged process of becoming a SEAL.

Older than his fellow recruits, Kyle endures the brutal training, which mostly involves being yelled at by sadistic instructors while being soaked with water, suffering submersion in the cold ocean, and absorbing a good deal of pain. (In accordance with military tradition, he naturally ends up in the arid, dusty cities of Iraq, with no water in sight -- so much for all that dunking and sputtering).

The action then returns to the opening scene of what turns out to be Kyle's first kill.  After that baptism in blood, Kyle employs his ability to shoot with uncanny accuracy, acquiring a special status among his comrades, who come to call him Legend. When they know he in effect watches over them, they carry out their missions with increased confidence, even recklessness -- they believe that the Legend will shoot anyone intent on ambush, and most of the time they are right.

Kyle romances and eventually marries Taya (Sienna Miller), whom he met after completing his SEAL training, which naturally complicates his life and his mission. Taya wonders about the people, as she puts it, at the other end of his rifle and about his dedication to his profession. When he keeps returning to Iraq -- four tours of duty -- she angrily raises the obvious question about his priorities, whether he would rather go to war or stay at home with his children.

Chris Kyle's response to those issues provides little in the way of insight into his character.  He mouths the usual tired platitudes about patriotism, defending the greatest country on Earth (from the people who did not attack it in 2011), keeping the terrorists from San Diego, and other such blather. He also believes that all of his kills -- over 160 confirmed by the military -- were entirely justified, that they saved the lives of many soldiers, regretting only the lives he couldn't save.

Although the picture tells a compelling and presumably true story, it mostly lingers on the surface, providing little in the way of complexity in any of the characters, including the protagonist. It only hints at anything resembling PTSD, showing Chris Kyle's eventual return to civilian life as a relatively smooth process in which his only difficulties again arise from his awareness of the lives he didn't save. In a kind of compensation, he works with severely wounded veterans, many maimed by that terrible, useless, endless war; even they regard him as a hero.

The tragedy of Chis Kyle's life, however, derives not so much from his lack of introspection, but from its premature ending. An apparently disturbed veteran he counseled shot and killed him on a firing range, a tragic irony rare even for literature or cinema. Saddest of all, "American Sniper" ends with the actual footage of his funeral, with thousands of people, waving flags, veterans saluting, watching the motorcade, the most moving sequence in a morally troubling film.