Not many films open with the protagonist killing a child. At the outset of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, SEAL marksman Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) peers through the scope on his rifle and agonizes with the decision to shoot a young boy carrying an Anti-Tank Grenade towards US troops.
Kyle was the deadliest sniper in US history, with 160 kills verified by the US government (the actual number, reported by Kyle, was 255). He was a cowboy from Texas who gave up the rodeo after a severe injury, and joined the SEALs in 1999 at the age of 24 (oddly, the movie makes him 30 when he enlists). He became known as “Legend” in Iraq, and after his tours of duty he wrote the bestselling memoir that Eastwood’s film is based on.
Kyle also told unverified stories about picking off Katrina looters from atop the Superdome in New Orleans, and killing two thieves who tried to steal his truck in Texas. He claimed to have knocked out Jesse Ventura, referred to as “Scruff Face” in his book, after the former governor made remarks about the SEALs during a barroom altercation.
Ventura filed a lawsuit, asserting the incident never took place. Defamation suits are notoriously difficult to win, but a jury awarded him $1.8 million last summer, casting a shadow over not just Kyle’s version of this story, but other accounts in American Sniper.
If Kyle’s book was an exaggerated version of the truth – if the real-life sniper included fictionalized accounts of real events to satisfy his bravado and boost his legacy – then he might have been pleased with Eastwood’s film, which distorts the truth even further to fit traditional Hollywood prototype.
There was no boy carrying a grenade, according to the novel, though there was a woman with a grenade who became Kyle’s only non-male combatant. Kyle and his team were never tasked with bringing down “The Butcher”, a character based on infamous warlord Abu Deraa, who is still operating in Iraq. And Kyle never went toe-to-toe with Syrian sniper Mustafa, who bears only passing mention in the novel but dominates the second half of the film.
Even the numbers – Kyle’s age, the bounty placed on his head – are fudged to, I dunno, sound more impressive. Much of the narrative of the film has been wholly invented.
So the film may not be factually accurate; par for the biopic course. How does it work otherwise?
In American Sniper, written by Jason Dean Hall, we follow Cooper’s Chris Kyle from a rodeo would-be to legendary SEAL in rat-a-tat, no-nonsense fashion that covers basic training, his relationship with wife Taya (Sienna Miller) and their children, a series of increasingly difficult missions in Iraq that lead him to decide to come home, and his struggles to fit in with day-to-day life while back in the US.
It’s a whirlwind affair that rarely pauses for air, and 84-year-old director Eastwood displays as sure a hand as he’s ever shown; I especially liked the Deer Hunter-like hard cuts between scenes of intense warfare and the mundane life back in the US. The film picks up greatly in the second half with the addition of rival sniper Mustafa (played by Sammy Sheik), featuring intense scenes of Kyle and his team pinned down by long-range rifle fire.
Still, the thematic ground the film covers is awfully familiar: The Hurt Locker did this same thing five years ago, and it did it better.
Cooper is a little more soft-spoken and good-natured than the Kyle many of us would picture, but I liked that Hall’s script attempts to paint him as a flawed human being rather than the “legendary badass” his reputation carries. One of the most revealing scenes in the film showcases his frustration in trying to get a nurse to care for his newborn daughter in the maternity ward.
Mention must be made of the baby. The baby. During one of the film’s most pivotal scenes, a when-will-you-be-here conversation between Chris and Taya after the birth of their daughter, an obvious toy doll is used in place of an actual infant, as if this were an SNL skit. It even creepily moves its arm at one point; some viewers have theorized that animatronics were employed, but I think the doll was simply puppeteered by Cooper.
Screenwriter Hall revealed that after one infant fell ill and the backup didn’t show, Eastwood went for the toy. Fair enough. But the baby is so distracting that it should have been excised from the final cut, regardless of the importance of the scene otherwise.
Chris Kyle’s American Sniper may not have been a completely accurate version of the truth, and Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper further distorts things in a Hollywood fantasy version of his life. Still, it respectfully honors Kyle’s legacy while bringing his story to the widest audience imaginable; with a box office take of over $300 million stateside, it was one of the most successful films of 2014.