American Sniper: a shot to the soul

Editor’s note: this review contains some spoilers.

Whenever a film’s context is war, especially between the United States and the Middle East, there is inevitable controversy. Since American Sniper has been released, critics have attacked the film for its apparent glorification of war. Specifically criticized were snipers, who documentarian Michael Moore has classified in the past as “cowards.” However, American Sniper isn’t about the glorification of war or snipers. The film is about humanity. It is about one man — one human — who makes several sacrifices and struggles between existing in the mentally-draining landscape of war and the normalcy-demanding reality of society. And while we all can’t relate to the specifics of Chris Kyle’s story, we can relate to the general premise, for it is something we encounter constantly in our own lives.

From the beginning of the film we are introduced to Chris Kyle, a sniper for SEAL Team 3, a special unit in the United States Navy Seals. From the outset of American Sniper, Kyle is presented with the impossible task of determining whether he should shoot a mother and her child, who seem to be carrying a grenade in the midst of war. Before we find out whether he pulled the trigger or not, there is a flashback that takes us from Chris Kyle’s days as an aspiring cowboy with his brother to the day of his deployment to the moment where Kyle decides to pull the trigger and ultimately save his nearby men from injury, or even death.

Over the remainder of the film, Bradley Cooper brings the down-to-earth Chris Kyle to life with an outstanding performance as a man who is faced with a decision to defend his country amid the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, or care for his wife and new son. The strife that Cooper so believably depicts is that of Chris Kyle — and all men and women in the armed forces — in real life. The line between keeping his family safe by fighting overseas and keeping them safe by physically being with them is one that Kyle had tremendous difficulty drawing. One of the main reasons for this struggle is that Kyle cannot separate the horrors he experienced in war from his civilian life, most notably in a scene involving a barbecue with his neighbors and his dog.

By the film’s end, Chris Kyle is at peace. Now 2013, well past his fourth tour, Kyle lives with his wife, son, and young daughter in his home state of Texas. His life was finally in harmony. Kyle even began helping disabled veterans with therapy, counseling, and assisting them at the local shooting range. On February 2, 2013, Kyle and friend Chad Littlefield were shot by a 25-year old veteran that Kyle was helping to rehabilitate. As the film ended with actual footage of Chris Kyle, his funeral procession, and his memorial service at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, I was left in thought. Exiting the theater with my friend, I didn’t feel uplifted or saddened, just contemplative. And that’s a good thing.

Although the subject of much controversy, American Sniper is a film that many won’t understand, but not because I am particularly perceptive or others are not. Many will miss the essence of this film because of the temptation to politicize it. Of course, the context is political: war. However, the content is anything but. With a stellar Oscar-nominated performance from Bradley Cooper, carefully executed and also Oscar-nominated direction from Clint Eastwood, and a touching story of humanity from Chris Kyle, American Sniper is a movie that should not be missed, because it’s about us all.