Snipers are supposed to be solitary types. Patient, waiting. So it makes sense that for Clint Eastwood’s brooding film about Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL sniper with the most confirmed kills in U.S. military history, the filmmakers would feel the need to create a proper adversary for him. That would be Mustafa, the ghostly Olympic-trained insurgent sniper who becomes Kyle’s white whale during his multiple tours in Iraq. The contest of wills and long-range shots between Kyle and Mustafa becomes probably the most engaging part of the film. But it also calls into question the authenticity of a project purportedly based on Kyle’s bestselling autobiography American Sniper, which confined its mention of Mustafa to just one paragraph.
Emotionally, there is less question as to the story’s authenticity. Bradley Cooper is rarely the sort to grab one’s attention at center stage; he only truly lights up in Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, or The Hangover films when there’s a co-star for him to bounce his nervy patter and blue eyes off of. But Cooper’s performance as Kyle delivers the proper mix of humility and bottled-up frustration called for in a soldier from whom so much is expected. The film starts off with Kyle on a rooftop in Iraq, covering a column of Marines advancing through a city. He sees a woman hand a grenade to a young boy, who runs with the weapon towards the Marines. No other soldiers have eyes on the pair. His spotter reminds him that if he gets it wrong, “they’ll burn you.”
Jason Hall’s script then flips back in time to provide some scaffolding for the responsibility weighing on that moment. A full-on Texas cowboy raised with the fear of God and never backing down from a fight, Kyle appears to be the sort of restless bronco who would eventually be given a jail-or-army ultimatum by a judge after smashing up a roadhouse. Instead, he volunteers for the SEALs. In short order he shows promise as a sniper, gets married to a snarky but sad-eyed woman (Sienna Miller, capable here but not much more) who initially swears she would never date a SEAL, and ships out to Iraq to start killing bad guys.
Eastwood’s buildup to that first moment on the rooftop is classically sound, establishing Kyle as a braggadocious but morally sound individual well suited to making the kind of call about who lives and dies. After he takes the shot, Kyle’s spotter whoops like he had just bagged a buck. Kyle starts at the approval, and snaps, “Get your fucking hand off me.” This kind of moral unease is strung through the film. In scene after scene, Kyle takes down insurgents from a distance with ease. Their bodies flop in the street like rag dolls while he rubs his eyes, Cooper quietly registering a growing sickness with the whole affair.
A crucial problem with American Sniper is that dramatically the story doesn’t have anywhere to go once Kyle’s character and skill are laid out by that initial scene coming full circle. There’s a lot of movie left to get through after that. Kyle’s autobiography, a runaway bestseller, had little story to build on, being mostly a thinly structured assemblage of random incidents brocaded by unreflective righteousness. For that reason, Hall’s screenplay creates a long-running battle between Kyle and the fictional Mustafa, as well as an al-Qaeda enforcer named “The Butcher.” That turns the body of the film into a series of isolated urban warfare vignettes that are tautly constructed by Eastwood and his longtime cinematographer Tom Stern. But divorced of the Iraq War’s larger context or any organic sense of camaraderie between Kyle and his fellow soldiers, few of these scenes connect. By the time Eastwood and Hall build to a conveniently dramatic Sadr City shootout in the shadow of a looming sandstorm, it starts to feel all too stage-managed as well.
Interestingly, it’s the back-home material that has more heft. This involves the screenplay grafting a wounded awareness onto the book’s pugilistic attitude. But depressingly few American filmmakers have so studiously grappled with the dissociative nature of modern war as in the scenes where Kyle deals with being a stone killer in Ramadi one day and a backyard barbecue dad the next. The film is forthright about Kyle’s struggles with violence, particularly the price that it exacts and the long shadows it casts, even over men desperate to be seen as sturdy heroes. But that honesty sits uneasily with the fakery of so many of the wartime scenes. The question that has to be asked is, if so much had to be made up for this film to exist, why make it in the first place?