In Clint Eastwood's American Sniper, Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) — an astoundingly talented marksman credited with more than 160 confirmed kills in Iraq — runs into a fellow veteran at a mechanic's shop between deployments. The soldier shows Kyle an artificial leg and thanks him for saving his life. Cooper, all thick with new muscles, smiles tightly and falsely. He's just trying to get his oil changed, man.
The real-life Kyle was murdered two years ago by a fellow veteran, Eddie Routh, a scrawny, 25-year-old Marine with PTSD. As Cooper plays him, Kyle wears his heroism like a heavy saddle — he's spurred to do more, fight more, kill more because he feels the weight of all the American soldiers he must save. Cooper and Eastwood's Kyle is a humble, literally straight-shooting patriot who squirms when people call him a legend. "That's a title you don't want," he grunts. If Kyle were alive, one wonders what he would have made of the film — especially when Eastwood shows him staring at a TV screen, rattled by flashbacks triggered by the very type of war movie in which he's starring.
As in all biopics, American Sniper leaves audiences to parse the distinctions between Kyle the human and Kyle the character, with Eastwood, their conduit, blurring the difference. The real Chris Kyle complicated things further. Kyle claimed he killed two men who attempted to carjack him in Texas and got only a pat on the head from police impressed with his service record. (County sheriffs deny the shooting ever happened.) He claimed he had been hired by Blackwater to snipe armed looters at the Superdome in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (a fellow SEAL said that story "defies the imagination"). And he even claimed he had gotten into a bar fight with Jesse Ventura, who won a $1.8 million defamation lawsuit against Kyle's estate. (His estate could afford it; Kyle's talk-show-circuit j'accuse of the former governor caused sales of the sniper's autobiography to spike from 3,400 copies to No. 2 on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list.)
Eastwood doesn't buy into his boasts. None of Kyle's three incredible claims made it into the final cut of the film, though the IMDb credit for "Carjacker #2" suggests the director might have shot that scene and then reconsidered. Cautiously, Eastwood has chosen to omit Kyle's self-mythologizing altogether, which is itself a distortion of his character. The humble Kyle onscreen is Kyle with his flaws written out. We're not watching a biopic. We're watching a drama about an idealized soldier, a patriot beyond reproach, which bolsters Kyle's legend while gutting the man.
Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall fill in the gaps with a subplot that explains Kyle's four tours of duty in Iraq as his personal pursuit of vengeance against the Iraqi insurgents' best sniper, Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), said to be a former Olympic sharpshooter, and the Butcher of Fallujah (Mido Hamada) — neither of whom Kyle concerns himself with in his book. Mustafa is given two sentences ("I never saw him," Kyle writes); the Butcher of Fallujah was captured in September 2009, one month after Kyle left the Navy.
Kyle's actual enemies were less defined. As seen here, any Iraqi man between 10 and 60 isn't middle-aged but "military-aged" — i.e., a threat. Kyle seemed to think that of every Muslim, writing in his book, "I don't shoot people with Korans. I'd like to, but I don't." (That, too, Eastwood deletes.)
Last year, Kyle's friend Marcus Luttrell was the lead character in the wildly lucrative Lone Survivor. This film is also likely to be a financial success. The popularity of these military martyrdom movies proves they speak to millions of Americans, many of whom served or love people who did, and watch in search of an answer to a question that's difficult to ask: Was the sacrifice worth it? The answer these audiences want to — need to — hear is yes. And these fictional versions of Chris Kyle and Marcus Luttrell assure us it was. The directors grace the theater with the soldiers' bloody benediction.
That there are trickier follow-up questions our country must also ask doesn't diminish the angst over this one, especially for people who worried when loved ones went abroad, and were bereft when they didn't come home — or when, like Kyle, they came home different.
"There's a strange man in my bedroom," Kyle's wife, Taya (a strong Sienna Miller), says after the SEAL returns from his first tour. He can't and won't talk about what he's seen. Eastwood makes us understand how hard it is for a sniper to pull the trigger on a person who's a thousand yards away and unaware. Yet halfway through the film, Eastwood drops the sniping too and has Kyle put down his rifle for generic Jason Bourne-style street-level asskickery. Why call his character Kyle at all?
It's clear in his book that Kyle had become numb to death. About killing two Iraqis on a moped with one bullet, he joked, "It was like a scene from Dumb and Dumber." (Naturally, Eastwood also omits that tidbit.) Eastwood can't carve a morally complicated movie when his main character — in life and onscreen — defined people in black-and-white: There are bad guys and good guys, and anyone else is a pussy. The film hints, whisper-softly, that perhaps Kyle was afraid to think too hard about the life-and-death decisions his country asked him to make — a fear Kyle himself would have phooeyed. He was a hero doing and saying the things a hero should, and Eastwood is too tongue-tied to prevent this unexamined jingoism from echoing through the multiplex. Instead, Eastwood simply steps back and allows American Sniper to play like heartland bingo, in its opening minutes paying homage to guns, football, hunting, the Bible, Lone Star beer, and rodeo cowboys. Here are things worth defending, says Eastwood. Then he crosses his fingers and hopes he's said enough.