Eight year-old Chris Kyle shoots his first deer under the supervision of his father Wayne. His life-lessons about guns, and his own destiny, begin at this moment and later when his father tells him that there are three types of people - “sheep, wolves and sheepdogs.” In daddy Wayne’s vernacular a sheepdog is one of “those (people) who are blessed with the gift of aggression and an overpowering need to protect the flock.” Wayne embellishes his admonishing comments to young son Chris saying “we’re not raising any sheep in this family and I will whoop your ******** ass if you turn into a wolf.” To no one's surprise, 25 year-old Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) becomes the ultimate sheepdog - the Navy’s most proficient sniper in the 2014 blockbuster film “American Sniper.” .
The above analysis of “American Sniper” is far too shallow to do critical justice to this powerful film. This box-office record-breaking motion picture is all about conflict - some of it apparent - some less discernible. Navy Seal Chris Kyle was clearly an adept and lethal sniper. With 160 confirmed kills, of 225 claimed, Kyle became a legend and was actually referred to as “The Legend” by fellow soldiers and enemy combatants. A sniper’s form of conflict, however, is not the same as the conflict model experienced by soldiers “on the ground.” Intuitively the audience senses this difference while experiencing Kyle’s deadly expertise. Anyone who felt that there was a “romantic” dimension to the role of a sniper is disabused of this notion during the course of the story.
While Chris Kyle was acting out his father's direction to be a “sheepdog,” in reality he was the lone wolf his dad cautioned him not to be. At a macro level Kyle was the sheepdog protecting his flock. At a micro level, he, and all snipers, are judge jury and executioner administering their judgment from afar with the compression of a trigger on a high-powered sniper rifle.
A second level of palpable angst in “American Sniper” are the conflicted emotions of Kyle, and his fellow warriors. This conflict resulted from their sense of futility about the validity of their role in the inter-tribal and inter-religious conflicts in which they found themselves in Iraq. Whether called shell shock, battle fatigue, war neurosis or PTSD, this emotional trauma has been the inescapable reality of all wars and is a manifest sequela of the engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. This debilitating disorder progressingly victimized Kris Kyle, the super sniper and battle-field legend, during his tours of duty in Fallujah, Ramadi and Sadyr City. Interestingly, another PTSD afflicted war veteran took Chief Petty Officer Chris Kyle’s life on a shooting range in Texas.
So palpable is the tension in “American Sniper” that the audience falls victim to an inexplicable level of anxiety while viewing the film. Various scenes reflecting the sniper’s horrific choices punctuate the action. Kyle, for example, is confronted with having to decide whether to kill young children who may or may not be involved in activities which could possibly result in the death or maiming of coalition soldiers. So skillfully are these scenes constructed that the audience feels visceral disquietude over whether or not Kyle should pull the trigger. Much of this is testimony to the directorial skills of Clint Eastwood.
Modern satellite phone technology enabled wife Taya (Sienna Miller) to be party to some of the action in which sniper Kyle found himself. This mixed-blessing communications technology is an artifact of the modern anywhere, anytime nature of our lives. In 1996 mountaineer Rob Hall, hopelessly stranded on the peak of Mt. Everest, used a satellite phone to say a final goodbye to his wife in the US. Likewise, on a couple of occasions, Taya Kyle was chillingly close to hearing Chris’ last words from the battlefield thousands of miles away.
A great deal more could be said about “American Sniper.” The temptation to go into more detail must be resisted. Suffice it to say that the film, and the acting by Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller, will engage you in a way seldom experienced on the silver screen. Rest assured that you will leave the theater with mixed emotions about Chris Cooper, the war in Iraq, and war in general. The commonly accepted perceptions, and realities, surrounding the role of the sniper will also leave you examining your feelings about this feature of warfare.