There’s a famous quote in the classic Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, in which a reporter says, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Clint Eastwood, who got his start in Westerns, has created a modern take on that classic American genre, while also doing his best to make sure that the legend of Christopher Kyle becomes fact.
American Sniper is based on the autobiography of Kyle, a Navy SEAL who went through four tours in Iraq as a sniper, ending up with more confirmed kills than any other sniper in American military history. He was such a legend in his own time that his nickname was, in fact, The Legend.
Kyle is played by Bradley Cooper, who transforms himself into a beefy, mumbling Texan with either an under bite or a gum perpetually filled with chaw. (Perhaps it’s both.) At a young age, Kyle’s father tells him and his brother that you are one of three things in life: a wolf, a sheep, or a sheep dog. After some shiftless years as a rodeo cowboy, Kyle sees a news report about the terrorist bombings in Nairobi, and decides to enlist in the Navy, to become that proverbial sheep dog, protecting his flock.
Soon after marrying his wife Taya (Sienna Miller), and following the 9/11 attacks, Kyle ships out to Iraq, and joins a war that, through Eastwood’s steadfast eyes, is pretty devoid of any moral ambiguity, even when it comes to killing women and children. Oh sure, Kyle has some trepidation at times when pulling that trigger. But don’t ever doubt that when he does, it’s a righteous kill.
The majority of the movie focuses on Kyle’s tours, his hours spent looking through that sniper rifle’s eyesight, and his eventual move into more boots-on-the-ground combat. Meanwhile, Sienna Miller’s role is reduced to screaming into cell phones “CHRIS!!! ARE YOU OK?” and then being sad and annoyed when Chris comes off a tour and is “changed.”
I’ll give Eastwood this: He films the action with a steady hand, avoiding the dreaded shaky cam too often utilized in modern action sequences, and he isn’t afraid to leave some things literally murky and unclear. (For example, a pivotal shootout takes place during an impending sand storm.)
Eventually, Kyle decides to come home for good, and I would venture to say about 20 minutes of the two-hour-plus movie is devoted to his life as a veteran, his PTSD, and his eventual work helping fellow veterans cope with their own PTSD.
And then the movie ends with a title card and credit sequence that feels like a slap in the face.
I won’t spoil it here, although this is a “true story,” so the ending isn’t that hard to stumble upon. But here’s the thing: what happens right before the ending? THAT’S a movie I’d want to see; THAT’S a story that’s worth telling–not the aggrandizing of a “legend” and war-as-first-person-shooter that American Sniper turned out to be.