The perils of being a sniper in America’s 21st century wars is shown in the opening scene of American Sniper, where Chris Kyle has a mother and her son in his scope. It’s a taste of the oppositional warfare has become increasingly reliant on guerrilla tactics since Vietnam; ironically, the same tactics that helped America define itself in the 18th century. Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper chronicles Chris Kyle’s decorated career as American’s most deadly sniper while side-stepping political sentiments for a character study.
As a child who just learned to shoot his first deer, Chris Kyle’s father explains that there are three types of people in the world: Sheep who are unable to protect themselves, wolves who prey on the sheep, and sheepdogs who protect the sheep from the wolves. Some years later, Chris (Bradley Cooper) is now a traveling rodeo cowboy who arrives home earlier than expected to find his girlfriend with another man. Her cries for attention lead to her demonizing his complacent life as a cowboy. While pondering the accusation, Chris sees the 1998 Embassy bombings on TV, inspiring him to enlist in the Navy SEALs, where he slowly becomes an ace sniper. Yet, it is the events of 9/11 that would eventually push Chris into several tours of Iraq where he is touted as a hero to the US and a wanted man elsewhere.
When Chris’s father discusses the differences between sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs, the metaphor is simplified. As the film unravels, Clint Eastwood explores how these three metaphors blend into grey areas, and these grey areas are where we are left to discuss the depiction of Chris Kyle in American Sniper. Is Chris a lethal hero that assisted the US in Iraq, or is he just another natural born killer subjected to lies politicians employed to provoke another war? No solider would accept the latter on the premise that their enlisting was a selfless attempt to fight for their country, but as spectators we have the unique opportunity to consider both.
The real question perhaps is whether or not American Sniper–the film, not the autobiography which the film is based on–is hagiography? Eastwood depicts Kyle as a gallant hero, willing to go to extreme lengths to save fellow Americans in deadly situations, even if it means abandoning his own posts. He bottles his own grief and suffering, never glorifying war, or taking pride in his accomplishments, the same accomplishments that have endowed him as “The Legend.”
Clint Eastwood is getting up there, but you would never know it from the material found in American Sniper. The film shies away from flashy battle scenes and instead strictly focuses on the intensity of a seemingly endless war. Bradley Cooper, whose recent performances have been increasingly legendary as well, added a considerable amount of muscle, and borrows Eastwood’s own gruff for his depiction of Chris Kyle.
Politics and character studies aside, American Sniper is an important modern war film that forces the audience to peek through a scope to focus on the ruthlessness of post-Vietnam warfare, where the Rules of War were a romantic concept left for Western countries. But American Sniper never takes sides. The viciousness of war falls on all parties, and American Sniper does not depict either anti-war or even pro-war sentiments, just the general brutality of all war.