‘American Sniper’ Hits It’s Target Dead-On

Casey St. Charnez - February 13, 2015

'Nevertheless I sure have taken my own sweet time in rousting myself to go see it.'

NEWS ITEM: Stephenville TX—Eddie Ray Routh, currently on trial for the murder of Iraqi war hero Chris Kyle, was described as being  “straight-up nuts” in one of Kyle’s last e-mails. Kyle was shot dead on a firing range on February 2, 2013, as he was trying to help a fellow veteran overcome his PTSD.

Although “American Sniper” is produced and directed by Clint Eastwood, who I consider to be America’s best living movie director, nevertheless I sure have taken my own sweet time in rousting myself to go see it.

That’s because over the past three weeks since it opened, I’ve read and heard the 132-minute production proclaimed to be a polarizing love it-or-hate-it film, some declaring it pro-war, decrying its militaristic vehemence, with many deploring a scene near the end where Kyle (Bradley Cooper) “playfully” points a pistol at his wife Taya (Sienna Miller), ordering her to “drop your drawers.” I wondered if I could bear to sit through it.

Finally, I went, however dutifully, and while I was shocked by that aforementioned domestic scene, still I must say that “American Sniper” fully deserves its big three nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Jason Hill’s Best Adapted Screenplay (plus three other technical awards).

It is a very, very good picture.

And it is not pro-war. Anything but. Instead, it is a character study masquerading as an action flick.

The character, and he sure was one, is Odessa, TX-born Kyle, the Navy SEAL credited with over 160 confirmed kills--and perhaps as many as 255--in his four tours of duty in Iraq. The two-time Silver Star awardee, a former church deacon and Sunday school teacher, thought of himself as a good Christian, a zealous patriot, and a devoted family man. He justified his lethal marksmanship by explaining that he was a sheep dog protecting the sheep from the wolves. He did not support the war; he supported his men.

The movie paints him not only heroically, as a man on a mission (to rid the Middle East of an equally deadly hitman on the other side, as well as the enforcer known as The Butcher and the bin Laden mastermind Abu Masab al-Zarqawi), but also as a quiet albeit deeply troubled man at home. Taya, practically a single mother raising their small son and daughter while Kyle spent more than 1,000 days in country, tells him, “Even when you’re here, you’re not…here.” He is the very definition of PTSD, much of which he recounted in his 2012 memoir “American Sniper: The Autobiography of the World’s Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History.” (Indeed, part of his renown as “The Legend” may be attributed to his heat, a formidable McMillan TAC-338A armed with .338 caliber Lapua Magnum rounds).

The reality of the man, though, may have been somewhat darker. For instance, a 2013 online article in “National Review” said he had claimed to donate all his book proceeds to various veterans’ charities, but who may in fact given away only $52,000 while keeping $3 million for himself. He is also supposed to have been a lot more violent and prone to rages than he is shown on screen. There was, after all, that barroom dust-up with Jesse Ventura, an incident narrated in a chapter that litigation excised from future editions of his book. Movies based on fact often have end-title disclaimers stating that some scenes, dialog, and characterizations may have been changed for the screen. In the case of “American Sniper,” that could be an understatement.

Before he died, Kyle said that were a movie ever to be made of his life, only Clint Eastwood could do him justice. That is now a fait accompli. Unlike our other great U.S. directors, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, Eastwood is content simply to tell a story, and to tell it superbly. He is no show-off. While filmgoers rightfully may expect “American Sniper” to display Eastwood’s well-known Republican leanings, instead the movie is a convincingly mounted saga of a man who is ideally suited for his job.     

When the movie opened nationally on January 16, 2015, it broke all that month’s previous box-office records with a huge $100 million take just on its first weekend. Now, a month later, it has earned some $300 million, or more than all the other Oscar nominees combined. It is a major hit, and a financial personal best for both Eastwood and Bradley Cooper (“Silver Linings Playbook,” “American Hustle,” and rather improbably, “The Hangover” trilogy). Again I say that Cooper, who uncannily resembles Kyle, really deserves Best Actor. I’d love to see him win it, but it would be a startling upset.

By the way, when I told my wife Lisa that the war movie “American Sniper” had made a fortune in ticket sales, she said, “You’d think we have a Republican President.”

“We do,” I replied.