When it comes to making heroes from rogues and outcasts, Americans (and Texans in particular) are incredible alchemists. William Travis was a debtor, Jim Bowie a slaver and James Bonham a convict, but that is not what any of them are remembered for. And, despite their faults, the world has found incredible use for such men. Though he is not of as debased metal, the Chris Kyle of American Sniper definitely came from the same soil as other lone heroes who did not have to be good in order to become great.
Kyle, the deadliest sniper in American military history, may not accrue the same legendary status as his predecessors, but considering how American Sniper has been filling up Texas movie theaters in its opening weekend, he might not be far from the mark. The Chris Kyle of Clint Eastwood’s film adaptation is not a complicated man. Rather, he is a hot-blooded, courageous warrior with strong faith in the trinity—not the one from the Nicene Creed so much as the trinity of God, family and country as described by Ted Nugent songs.
While it does not dwell on this aspect of his character for too long, the film does imply that Kyle was, like other characters that the director has portrayed, a bit of a high plains drifter before finding his true vocation and publishing it through the barrel of a gun. Before even going into a recruiter’s office, Kyle was already getting on in years and he had a few dents and scrapes from rodeo rides that went south and, to borrow an old Texas euphemism, he looks like a man who has “gone to see the elephant” more than once. By the time that Kyle arrives in SEALs school, he is nearly three decades old or, as his petty officer instructor says, old enough to have begotten most of the people in his class.
What, precisely, Kyle intended to get out of the SEALS is uncertain. While American Sniper implies that he decided to join the Navy after seeing Al Qaeda bomb the American embassy in Tanzania, anyone who remembers the 1990s remembers them as relatively serene years. Given that it was a time when the world had ostensibly pushed the “Pause” button on history, becoming a solitary warrior might seem to have as much future becoming a horse-trader in Detroit. Kyle appears to have planned accordingly, marrying Taya Renae Kyle (Sienna Miller) soon after his graduation from SEALS school. But then September 11th made his marksmanship skills relevant again.
The film has odd—if also welcome—diegetic gap in between Kyle and his wife watching the Twin Towers collapse and him receiving word that he is about to deploy to Iraq (More than a year-and-a-half passed between when the towers collapsed and when the American military personnel set foot on Iraqi sand). Nonetheless, it makes for effective cinema to cut so quickly to his first kill. And while Kyle’s martial skills make his kills seem effortless, they never look easy. His first kill is a suicide bomber who is not old enough to shave. The filmmakers are willing to give Kyle the benefit of the doubt on the question of whether he only killed people who needed to die. Everyone we see him kill—a Sunni woman about to heave a grenade or a warlord who keeps severed heads in his kitchen—represents an evil that can only be stopped with violence. But, as Kyle is willing to admit, sometimes evil does not look like he would expect.
This is about as ambivalent as Kyle ever appears. While he, as well as his comrades, develops the thousand-yard-stare at home as well as abroad, it is not out of shame but rather routine alertness. When his wife calls him to task for his domestic absence, he answers that he is fighting for his family and that if he were not fighting “savages” in Iraq he would have to fight them in America instead. It is this sort of dialogue which has made American Sniper into a sort of social Rorschbach’s test with those on the Left arguing that the film glorifies misbegotten jingoism and those on the Right arguing that the film is a stirring portrait of American patriotism that the Obama years have sought to erode. Both are wrong. Clint Eastwood is a director who is conservative, but he is hardly a conservative. He is not condescending towards Kyle’s cultural predispositions, but he stops short of affirming them.
Even so, Kyle’s views as reflected in the film are likely to affect any viewer’s enjoyment of it for the simple reason that his point-of-view is the films main focus (literally as well as figuratively). Whatever can be said for or against its geopolitical accuracy, Kyle’s views were fairly consistent with those of most veterans (of those that I have known, anyway.) For warriors like Kyle, the struggle seemed more like a clear cut conflict between good and evil because in Iraq the conflict is rarely between “the West and the Rest” writ large. Rather, conflict was over trenches in World War I, foxholes in World War II, jungles and clearings in Vietnam and streets and squares in Iraq. For a Soldier (or Sailor in Kyle’s case) both thinking and acting are local.
Bradley Cooper does an effective job of bringing a human edge to this perspective. As idealistic a man as Kyle is, Cooper’s performance makes him one of the most believable and sincere ones to appear on screen this year. And while Kyle’s emotions are never ambivalent, Cooper makes the audience feel the weight of every unforgiving moment as he decides whether to permit life or take it away. (In one particularly intense scene, his hand trembles as a child who looks no more than seven years old decides to pick up a rocket propelled grenade launcher dropped by one of Kyle’s downed targets.)
The film is more technically ambitious than most of Eastwood’s recent work. In its last action sequence, in particular, Eastwood’s longtime collaborators, cinematographer Tom Stern and editor Joel Cox, are able to blend extreme close-ups of Kyle’s ever-vigilant and intense gaze with long, aerial shots of insurgents pouring in the front door of the building where Kyle is perched on the roof. The moment is urgent, and the atmosphere they create is too.
After returning home after his fourth and final deployment, Kyle, like so many other servicemen and women, finds that beating a sword into a ploughshare is much more difficult than it looks. Though, on his arrival, he is unable to go home without a sufficient dosage of alcohol, his values are unshaken. When asked if he is ashamed of anything that he did, he claims that what he regrets most is that he could not do more. The film does not dwell for long on what became Kyle’s second vocation: His work helping veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress adjust. While his first vocation made Kyle a hero, his second one makes him a good man, or at least a better one. If nothing else, it demonstrated that he had more value than to direct anger (and bullets) at the right target. Ultimately, it was this second vocation which led to his untimely death—a fact which Eastwood channels through postscript text and a montage of video and photographic images from Kyle’s funeral.
This ending is the film’s epilogue, but the entire film serves as a touching elegy to a particular American ethos that blended courage, uprightness and self-confidence. Whatever could be said for this New World, it is not a brave one. Kyle could not have been its savior, but the world will need men like him again. As Voltaire said, we all must tend to our gardens and, though their plots may have diminished in recent years, there is still room for those who wish to cultivate the grapes of wrath.