What is the truer measure of heroism; the man who fights to defend what is his, or the one who recognizes and accepts the most unconquerable of all, is the battle to discover the truer self from within? Whatever this barometer, typifying the struggle to come out on top is American sniper, Chris Kyle. Too much has been politicized about Kyle’s reputation as a highly decorated Navy SEAL, sporting the most impressive ‘confirmed kills’ while defending his fellow soldiers in Iraq. Intermittently, Kyle has been liberally referred to as a ‘coward’, a ‘murderer’ and ‘inhumane’; the incalculable cruelty of these comments, chiefly made by people who never knew the man, much less deigned to shake his meaty palm, speaks to a level of thoroughly misguided intolerance amongst many contemporaries today who would likely bend to break on the battlefields if ever faced with even one tenth the level of intense insurrections Kyle repeatedly starred down with a clear eye, a cool head and the dedication of an authentic patriot. Those suggesting otherwise would also have us believe wars can be conquered without bloodshed; that an open mind and a skewed slant toward diplomacy can resolve most any issue herein resolved with pin-prick precision at the point of gun.
I have read too much on Chris Kyle that speaks to this level of postmodern disdain - nee abject hatred – for gallant men and women fighting our battles half way around the world on some nearly forgotten plateau of sand and blood; the memory of every soldier – fallen or still in it to win it - somehow made just a little more disreputable and unsavory by these comments; the public’s appetite for a ‘good clean fight’ with zero casualties on either side, eclipsing the reality that any man or woman who invokes their right to protect and serve is placing their bodies – but far more importantly – their spirit and morality in harm’s way so that others might possess freedom; even the luxury to bash their purpose and chosen profession. Frankly, it’s disgusting. Chris Kyle was a shining example of American military might doing what is necessary to make the world safe for democracy. He did it without malice, with pride and with a sense of proportion he fought like hell to regain, then maintain upon returning home to his wife and children. Perhaps because he so embodied that template of the American soldier – body, mind and spirit – he has, by some warped and frustrated standards of today become the perfect whipping boy for the leftist pacifist, who neither grasps the concept of conflict, nor entirely understands exactly what he/she finds particularly offensive about Kyle, except that he was very good at his job.
Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2014) approaches Kyle’s best-selling autobiography with all the reverence and trepidation of a master storyteller, intent on getting to the heart and soul of the man behind the rifle. Who could have foreseen when the project was first begun with Kyle’s participation that the resultant movie would serve as a controversial epitaph to the man himself; Kyle - seemingly unstoppable abroad - meaninglessly gunned down in his home town, along with fellow SEAL and friend, Chad Littlefield by Eddie Ray Routh; a deranged act of cowardice the media has since reframed as the sad actions of a mentally disturbed individual suffering from ‘personality disorders’; pitying the psychotic, while casting aside the victim. While Routh, who also served in the military without distinction, never officially offered any answers as per his motivations for this double homicide, both men were shot in the back, with Kyle also sustaining the added indignation of being shot once in the face, suggesting – if anything – these killings were far more a ‘hate crime’ or act of ‘jealousy’ than a case of pure insanity run amuck. Wisely, Eastwood’s movie leaves this penultimate and very bizarre last chapter to Kyle’s life an enigma; the focus remaining on the fallen instead of the ne'er-do-well who survived.
Barely recognizable beneath a week’s scruff and seriously packed-on muscles, Bradley Cooper, in one of the most awesome and impressively immersive transformations recalled in recent cinema history, allows Kyle’s stoicism, mental anguish, and, ultimate dedication to discharge his duties as ascribed, to shine through. The majesty in Cooper’s portrayal lies in the subtler, uncanny nuances; the inflections and mannerisms he has adopted – more richly Kyle than a mime’s performance. The level of integrity Cooper has invested in this portrait speaks to his own impeccable humility. There are moments in American Sniper where he completely disappears, replaced by an eerie facsimile. And Cooper lets the pain show; the impossible nature of combat, forcing men to lay down their life while dedicating themselves to the ruthless sacrificing of others. But the situation is even further complicated in American Sniper by the fact the foot soldiers on the other side are comprised, not of highly trailed militia, but of brainwashed townsfolk operating as terrorists, blindsided by their archaic adherence to a backward religion and who think nothing of using women and children, some barely old enough to walk, as mules to carry their bombs, grenades and rifles; another aspect of the Middle-Eastern conflict no media outlet seems willing to broadcast.
Make no mistake – this is still, a soldier’s story, some idiotically referencing American Sniper as “a complicated movie about an uncomplicated man”. To suggest as much is fairly insulting to Kyle’s memory, his widow and children – not to mention the U.S. military forces in totem. Soldiers are not mindless killer clones. They are people, highly skilled and staggeringly professional. Clint Eastwood, cribbing from a superlative screenplay by Jason Hall, has valiantly avoided the predictable pitfalls of distilling Kyle’s autobiography into a one-dimensional recap of his book, co-authored by Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice; the soldier merely glorified as a rigorously trained go-getter with all the killer’s instincts of a shark. No, American Sniper is instead a critical meditation on the incredible perils facing the functionality of a soldier’s creed: trained to sacrifice when he must, to endure all he can and beyond, and somehow – inexplicably - remain ‘above it all’; enough to be able to put down his weapon in peace time and presumably set aside the hell he has lived through: a tall order to which many are called but few can subsist without sacrificing their souls to the nightmare.
And just so we are clear: neither the movie nor Kyle’s book have deified the man. Kyle’s widow would be among the first to suggest Chris was not an easy man to understand. He was, however, above all else, equally as dedicated to his family as his profession; a man of high-functioning moral character, rare qualities that made him an incredible asset to the military and possessing strong convictions that served his own emotional core well upon his return home. Cooper’s performance and Eastwood’s principles, as that rare conservative voice in a Hollywood miserably drowning in its own liberalized crapulence, has lent American Sniper an air of tragic valor. To some extent we lose a little of Chris Kyle; the notorious prankster and six foot tall gentle giant best known to his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller, doing a drop dead/bang on incarnation of the widow Kyle); the couple’s first ‘cute meet’ anything but ‘cute’ as the filmic Taya admonishes what she initially misperceives as just another ‘yahoo’ disreputably ramped up on his own male ego and a philanderer’s nature to break her heart.
Again, this isn’t a perfect story about beautiful people; rather, a misshapen nod that gets very up close and personal with individuals who are earthy and alive, who can love, laugh and resonate with one another on a deeply human level; without guile or pretend and with a certain disregard for the niceties of which, arguably, they know all too little about. Even when Clint Eastwood zeros in on Kyle’s calculated pursuit of former Olympic sharpshooter turned Iraqi insurgent, dubbed the ‘Butcher of Fallujah’ (Mido Hamada), his camera lens expresses a brutal absence of the guns-blazing machismo one might expect to dominate; Kyle’s obsession for taking out the competition simply defined on his unwavering commitment to protect as many American lives as is humanly possible. Flashbacks fill in the blanks on Chris’ upbringing: his father, Wayne’s (Ben Reed) tough love approach to rearing two boys into real men; Eastwood perhaps drawing a tad too heavily on the ole ‘Deer Hunter’ imagery as Chris (played as a child by Cole Konis) and younger brother, Jeff (Luke Sunshine as a boy, Keir O’Donnell as an empathetic adult sibling, following in his brother’s footsteps) are taken into the woods for their first hunting experience.
Yet, here too, and in all the flashbacks briefly to follow, Eastwood is sharply unsentimental, immensely effective and entirely uncomplicated; shifting to Kyle’s days as a rodeo bronco buster, caught in a dead end painfully subpar relationship with a trailer park gal pal who would rather be screwing her brains out with somebody else. To some extent, the early middle act of American Sniper stumbled into a predictable montage; the uncompromising depiction of boot camp and Navy SEAL basic training, its incumbents writhing through frigid waters and buried up to their eyeballs in ooze and mud, vaguely reminiscent of Richard Gere’s similarly themed ordeals in Taylor Hackford’s An Officer and a Gentleman (1982).
Yet, on the whole, Eastwood’s movie gets it right. He pays homage to the dead. He doesn’t desecrate their memory by second-guessing the job they were trained and sent to do. The real Chris Kyle could have expected no finer a tribute and, I suspect, would have been overwhelmed by the air of authenticity Bradley Cooper gave to his life’s work; tragically, also to embody the totality of his life’s story. Indeed, screenwriter, Jason Hall was to discover the merits of Kyle’s immediate and very outward distaste for disingenuousness; also, the real Kyle’s sense of fair play, allowing Hall to prove his mettle in his chosen profession. A cruder author and director might have gone for the Top Gun approach in re-telling Kyle’s story. Aside: Kyle was not above his own embellishments. But Eastwood refrains from adding flourish, no groundswell of background underscore or centralized flag-waving; no chest-thumping powwows as the returning company gather around their makeshift bonfires after an endless and interminable barrage of slo-mo battle sequences, heavy on the exploding squibs. No, American Sniper just seems very real, unrelentingly grim when needed, but mostly unapologetic about its subject.
Personal opinion, of course, but frankly, I have had it with the stunted adolescents who have reviewed American Sniper as an incomplete and abhorrent exultation of the violence that men do in the name of honor. Eastwood’s saga, his best in a very long time, is thought-provoking, evenly paced and well-intended from the first to last frame – period! Moreover, and even more miraculous in lieu of the way things end, it is an oft’ lyrical and life-affirming entertainment, the likes of which the war genre in particular and Hollywood movies in general of late have rarely dared to reexamine without a jaundiced and highly critical view of the military or fervent need to muddy the waters with a certain affliction for making every fictional character – but especially the ones we are supposed to be rooting for – an anti-hero.
American Sniper is book-ended by the real Chris Kyle’s aftermath; Eastwood regressing us to Kyle’s childhood, his father instilling the principles of true manliness: be neither a sheep (easily led and unwilling to defend what is rightfully yours), nor a wolf (the scourge of humanity), but a sheepdog (a.k.a. God’s shepherd on earth, with an impassioned desire to serve and protect the innocent). The message is lost – marginally – in adolescence. It always is: Chris meandering aimlessly as a would-be rodeo star before enlisting in the Navy. Basic training is hellish to say the least; grueling physical activity married to what most any of us would consider physical abuse; being sprayed with pump hoses while doing calisthenics or repeatedly forced ‘face down’ in the clammy mud to test one’s endurance. What these exercises actually instill is a sense of community and loyalty amongst the enlistees. United they stand, divided they fall. Flash ahead to Chris and Taya’s first meet; she ruthlessly emasculating a would-be suitor just prior to Chris’ arrival on the scene, then forcefully telling him to step off and find himself another target for the evening.
As fate, and movie clichés, would have it, such an odious beginning inevitable leads to love. Chris and Taya are married and he and his company are shortly thereafter deployed to Iraq, following the 911 attacks. Chris becomes embattled in a war that ostensibly the United States cannot win; the catacombs and corridors of these crowded streets honeycombed with traitors. As Taya is expecting their first child, Chris telephones to hear the sound of her voice. Terrorists attack the convoy and Chris’ cell phone is lost; Taya made to experience the sniper fire while not knowing whether or not Chris has survived. From this moment forward, a terrible tug of war begins; Chris returning from each tour of duty a little less responsive to Taya’s increasing concerns that the man she married is slipping away. Chris endures three more tours; Taya becoming pregnant again, but threatening to leave if Chris does not make sacrifices for his new family.
Herein, the screenplay, Eastwood’s direction and Bradley Cooper’s monumentally affecting performance superbly illustrate the strange and disturbing elixir that war presents to men like Chris Kyle: the opportunity to save many with the actions of a few while sacrificing their own personal happiness. This is Chris’ drug of choice, not because he fancies himself a great warrior or suffers from egotism and a ‘hero’ complex. Rather, he is living up to his father’s potential as a defender of the right and good. Besides, Kyle is at the top of his skill, picking off nearly every potential threat as his division makes a sweep of Fallujah is search of the ‘butcher’. Kyle is particularly keen at recognizing one of their ground informants (Ayman Samman) as a double operative, concealing weapons for the enemy. On his fourth tour, Chris’ outlook begins to change, particularly after his assignment to kill Mustafa (Sammy Sheik) unravels into abject chaos; Chris and his engineers barricaded on the rooftop and spared only by the advent of an epic sandstorm. Recognizing that his private life has outgrown his singular responsibilities to the military, Chris affectingly telephones Taya to say he is coming home. Alas, once on American soil an inexplicable sense of shame begins to creep in; Chris overestimating the threat a playful dog presents at a backyard barbeque and nearly killing the animal as a result. Kyle is haunted by the memory of soldiers he was unable to save. Taya suggests he reach out to other ailing veterans recuperating at the nearby hospital. The Veterans Affairs psychiatrist (Robert Clotworthy) makes inquiries into Chris’ state of mind, encouraging him to help amputees get their confidence back on the shooting range.
Helping others, Chris helps himself; his relationship with Taya and his young children growing stronger by the day. It seems the impossibly hellish road back from his tour’s end is at last beginning to level off. Regrettably, the hospital sets Chris up to meet a shell-shocked soldier. The penultimate moment of realization, that something is very wrong, comes too late for Chris; Taya quietly, though ever so slightly reluctant to close the door as Chris and the soldier head off together for the shooting range. It will be the last time Taya Kyle sees her husband alive; a slow dissolve and titles explaining Chris’ fate. This is immediately followed by stock footage of the roadside processional carrying Chris Kyle’s body, hundreds lining the streets and highway with flags draped on route to the memorial service at the Cowboy’s Stadium, attended by thousands more.
Even before Chris Kyle’s senseless murder, American Sniper was already a story that needed to be told; a wake-up call about the perils facing America’s troops in the Middle East without the clichés and flourish so often ascribed such cinematic outings. Eastwood’s undisturbed vision of Kyle’s sobriquet, ‘Legend’ guides this film through a labyrinth of narrative landmines, never to shy away from the excruciating, and arguably, meaningless price of honor; a chest full of medals or a flag-draped casket; the hero’s homecoming as bittersweet and tormented as that inevitable loss of conscience. On every level American Sniper is both satisfying and sobering. Inadvertently, it takes on something of the flavoring of a flag-waver too; almost unintentionally and never with the presumption this was always Eastwood’s intension.
Warner Home Video’s 1080p Blu-ray is predictably, a triumph; serving Tom Stern’s de-saturated cinematography exceptionally well. Razor-sharp textural nuances are married to a rich spectrum of hues, precisely rendered; the burnt sandy tones of the desert contrasted with the sundrenched Texan landscape back home. My one regret is the sparsely used digital effects in American Sniper tend to look even more cut-and-paste on this Blu-ray, particularly the heavy sandstorm that takes place near the end. Here, the image just seems to momentarily become unnecessarily thick, the camera artificially out of focus, presumably to obscure the CGI, though actually drawing more undue attention to it as a direct result. Nevertheless, contrast levels throughout are superbly rendered. Blacks are deep and solid. A lot of American Sniper is shot through a pseudo-sepia tint, leaving true white values a rather moot barometer for measuring image quality. There are one or two instances where the image looks a tad flat, or thick and pasty. Not sure what to attribute these shortcomings to, if, in fact, they are shortcomings.
The Blu-ray is encoded with Dolby Atmos (core Dolby True HD 7.1), a superior aural presentation that excels on all levels. The sonic resonance during battle scenes is remarkable and precise; ditto for explosions, guaranteed to rattle your subwoofer, offering a truly enveloping sound field; in short, a reference quality presentation. Interestingly, we get no audio commentary, rather, two very comprehensively produced ‘documentaries on the making of the movie; the first: ‘One Soldier’s Story’ covering the real Chris Kyle’s life and legacy, the other, ‘The Making of American Sniper’ providing a blow-by-blow of Eastwood’s arduous journey from page to screen. Bottom line: with the approaching July 4th weekend it would behoove us all to pause for a moment and reconsider the definitions of both ‘freedom’ and ‘valor’. American Sniper is an exceptionally fine way of marking this Independence Day. Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)