Raised to hunt humanely by his father, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) developed those early skills to become the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history. Starting off as a bronco rodeo rider, and later enlisting in the U.S. Navy in 1999, Kyle became a highly regarded member of the elite Navy SEALs.
He meets and marries Taya (Sienna Miller, unrecognizable as a brunette) and proceeds to serve four tours of duty in Iraq. Despite her pleas for him to remain stateside, Chris is drawn to the war zone and his need "to protect his brothers-in-arms". He is so good at his job that he acquires the nickname "Legend", and a bounty is placed on his head by the insurgents.
But despite the realization that he is keeping his fellow SEALs safe with his incredibly accurate marksmanship, the amount of kills he is responsible for begins to wear on his psyche. He's not comfortable at home --- and now he's overwhelmed in the field.
Kyle returns to the U.S. and undergoes intensive therapy to gain some perspective,
Eventually he and Taya, along with their two children, move back to Midlothian, Texas, where Kyle continues working with soldiers suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
"American Sniper" is based on Kyle's autobiography of the same title, which he wrote with Scott McEwan. Unfortunately, in the hands of director Clint Eastwood, the film comes off as incohesive, with more than a little overacting on the parts of just about everyone in the entire cast.
Though Cooper manages his Texas accent fairly well, and has packed on 40 extra pounds for this role, I never felt a real, true sense of his inner trauma. Sure, we have the scene shown in the trailer in which he's crying and telling Taya he's ready to come home --- something he's been very reluctant to do --- but it's that scene in particular which rings false for me.
Perhaps it's due to the adapted screenplay by Jason Hall. I can't comment on that because I did not read Kyle's book, but that moment in that scene seems forced and overdone. Which is why I find it so hard to believe that Cooper was nominated over David Oyelowo and/or Timothy Spall for Best Actor.
The same can be said for many of Miller's tearful scenes. The agony of dealing with a husband with PTSD has to be unbearable, but Taya's reactions are played for the tears, and seemingly not for any beneficial results.
"American Sniper" is crammed with action, heart-pounding moments and incredible gunshots by Cooper. But Eastwood seems distracted by his need to make a patriotic film more than a desire to show the real ramifications of so much killing.
Near the end of the film, Eastwood does manage to create one incredibly tense scene, which I will not disclose. If the rest of the film had been this truly effective, "American Sniper" would have been a much better movie.
Opinion: Wait for DVD
After his last film, "Trouble with the Curve", director Clint Eastwood had nowhere to go but up. He has done that with "American Sniper", and while it is getting more than its fair share of Oscar plaudits, I'm not convinced it belongs with the other candidates. That is not to say that Bradley Cooper does a bad job portraying real-life war hero Chris Kyle, but I don't believe Cooper's performance compares with David Oyelowo's, playing Martin Luther King in "Selma", or Timothy Spall's "Mr Turner", both of which were snubbed by Academy voters.
Chris Kyle was a 30-year-old Texan who was stunned watching film of the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa. After enlisting in the U.S. Navy, he attended "sniper school", but later, seeing the Twin Towers fall on 9-11, he was incensed, as we all were. He became a Navy SEAL and was sent to Iraq for the first of four tours of duty.
As a youth, his father trained him to be a sharpshooter, hunting deer with a high-powered rifle, where he learned early on that he had a great gift. While training under the close scrutiny of a Navy marksman, as portrayed in the film, Kyle was missing his stationary target with regularity until he spotted, literally, a snake in the grass. After shooting it dead from a distance, he exclaimed "I'm better when it's breathing".
Thus the stage is set for Kyle to be placed in precarious situations, where he must decide, for example, if a small boy is actually a suicide bomber about to endanger the lives of his fellow soldiers. With 160 confirmed kills out of 255 opportunities attributed to him (95 kills were unconfirmed), his reputation as the U.S. military's most lethal sniper was well-founded. Nicknamed "Legend", he had a bounty of $80,000 or more placed on his head by insurgents.
Kyle is credited with saving countless lives through his marksmanship. But his wife and children would ultimately suffer the consequences of his obsession. Despite the pleadings of his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), he cannot control his compulsion to return to the combat arena.
In the early going of his film, Eastwood jumps around from present day --- where Kyle is poised on a rooftop, searching for targets --- then sharply reverts to the past where he meets Taya in a bar, dates her and eventually marries her. The suspense of the present is interrupted repeatedly, so it's a bit of a jackrabbit approach to filmmaking.
No doubt the battle sequences Eastwood stages are based on Kyle's autobiography, and they appear very realistic in terms of Middle East warfare. These are not the jungles of Vietnam, or the beaches of Normandy. The Iraqi fighting, at least in Chris Kyle's world, is strictly door-to-door searches and sniper attacks, on both sides. Indeed, the insurgents have their own rooftop marksman, and one of the more intriguing sequences in "American Sniper" involves Kyle targeting his enemy counterpart from over 2000 yards away, on a distant rooftop not visible by the naked eye. Is it possible for someone to shoot with that much accuracy over a mile away? Unfortunately, as Kyle squeezes the trigger, Eastwood employs the tired technique of a slow-motion bullet en route to its target.
The director does manage snippets of true suspense, but for the most part, as befits the term "sniper", the shooter is positioned in a fairly safe and secure vantage point. Kyle does leave his rooftop to join the others on the ground, and in one scene, as the troops sit around the dinner table of an Iraqi family, Kyle spots something that is not quite right. It's a sequence that should have generated much more tension than it does, but it falls terribly flat. The horrors of door-to-door combat in the streets of Iraq are brought home because a soldier never knows from where or when the next fatal shot will occur.
Although in real life Kyle was shot twice during his time in Iraq, we rarely fear for his safety in the film. What's more, throughout much of the film, the actors are speaking in such monotones that it renders much of the film dull. Even at a funeral for one of Kyle's fallen comrades, despite the grieving of the soldier's mother, it is strictly by the book, no emotional involvement on our part because we barely knew the individual who died.
For those who don't know the full story of Chris Kyle, the ending of the movie will be a shocker. His obsession with returning to duty is a familiar one because we've seen this story before. In "The Hurt Locker", Jeremy Renner's character cannot handle the quiet, the tameness, the normalcy of civilian life, so he too
re-ups for multiple tours. It's simply a better told story in that film.
Opinion: Wait for DVD