Film Review: American Sniper

Image © Warner Bros. Pictures 

Image © Warner Bros. Pictures 

I'm kind of a sucker for ‘war movies.’  Maybe it’s because whenever a war film or Spaghetti Western was on TV when I was a child, my father would stop to watch it even if it was only the last five minutes.  I don’t recall showing much interest in said films but perhaps it sank into my psyche.  Or maybe it’s because while I’m in the military, I’m not exactly in a ‘military’ career and my idea of danger is forgetting to discharge a capacitor before troubleshooting something so these movies are a chance to live vicariously.  Maybe I should be talking about this to a psychologist rather than rambling.

Regardless of the reason, I have been jonesing to see American Sniper for months and I finally got my chance this weekend.  How does the new Clint Eastwood film stack up against recent films like, Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker? 

Fairly well, actually.  Like the other two films this isn’t a movie about people inwar.  It’s about people whose life is structured around war.  In American Sniper, Bradley Cooper is Chris Kyle, a good ol’ boy from Texas who enlists in the Navy after seeing the August 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.  Determined to do everything he can to save lives and protect his country, he successfully becomes a Navy SEAL.

In the process it’s discovered that not only is Chris a natural with a sniper rifle, he is the best of the best when it comes to ‘overwatch,’ keeping an eye on the surroundings and picking off danger from a distance while the grunts clear houses door-to-door.  He soon becomes a legend (they literally call him The Legend) as he racks up the most confirmed kills of any sniper deployed to the region. 

However Chris is not content with his accomplishments as long as an enemy sniper, Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), continues to operate.  A former Olympic champion, Mustafa is an elusive and skilled enemy who fades away every time the American forces get near his position.

If this sounds like it makes for an excellent war movie, you would be right.  But the reason I compared American Sniper to the two films mentioned above and not  Saving Private Ryan or Black Hawk Down is because the film exists in two worlds.  Outside of war-torn Iraq, Chris meets, falls in love with, marries, and has children with Taya (Sienna Miller).  These are the scenes that makes the film stand out as different from ‘standard’ war movies (before you crucify me, I said ‘standard’, not ‘bad,’ imaginary angry voices.) 

While Chris excels as a SEAL and is constantly driven to succeed, every time he comes home from a deployment more and more of his humanity seems to be missing.  Made jumpy by loud noises, prone to zoning out and unable to talk about his experiences to Taya, the film manifests PTSD in a powerful, sympathetic way.

But thank god for Sienna Miller.  While Cooper plays his character very well, there’s only so much an actor can do when told to portray inner conflict for most of a film.  Miller brings humanity and honest emotions to the screen and gives the audience a lot of insight into what thousands of spouses are going through right this minute. 

I have a few friends with PTSD, and though none of them seem to have issues this pronounced, the film consistently points out how damaging it can be to everyone involved.  PTSD is not something that should be ignored.  Eastwood could have made this a heroic biographical film about a sniper who overcame all adversity, one who stayed calm and cool and never suffered a moment’s doubt as he loyally defended America.  Instead he humanized Chris Kyle and demonstrated that no matter what your motivations, you’re still human and humans can’t just turn off their thoughts and emotions.