Running time: 2 hours 14 min.
Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 6; Language 8; Sex/Nudity 3.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
And the women sang to one another as they made merry, “Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands.”
1 Samuel 18:7
I was ambivalent at first about this film the subject of which is Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), a sniper billed as “the most lethal sniper in U.S. history.” Especially as this was within a few days of having seen the film featuring America’s advocate of nonviolence, Selma. Although some of that ambivalence remains, I am impressed that there is no Green Berets jingolism or glorification of violence in what amounts to a study of the influence of violence upon a decent man of faith and his family.
Jason Hall’s script in a flashback shows us that Kyle came by his creed of “God, country, family” at an early age. During a family meal following a fight at school when young Chris had defended his younger brother Jeff from bullies, Mr. Kyle asserts that people fall into three categories, “sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs.” The latter are those brave souls blessed with aggressive gifts and called to protect the innocent from the wicked wolves. The father tutors the boy in the ways of the hunt, proud when the lad drops a buck with just one shot. Once the action in Fallujah starts, we soon see that Chris Kyle continues to see himself as a protector, “a sheepdog,” no longer just his brother, but also of the men who stalk the enemy “wolves” through the dangerous streets of the town.
Kyle was motivated to enlist in the SEALs by seeing on TV attacks on US Embassies over seas in 1998 and the attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. During his rigorous, even brutal, training he meets in a bar Taya (Sienna Mithe), the woman whom he marries shortly before shipping out to Iraq. When his great accuracy with a rifle is discovered, his mission becomes that of lying on a roof with his highpowered rifle to protect his comrades below going door to door in search of terrorists.
His first two kills test his power of observation and ability to make a flash decision. He had seen a man on a rooftop talking on his cellphone. Speaking through his headphone, Kyle receives a green light to shoot if he thinks he is talking to terrorists. Kyle’s comrade suggests the man could be speaking with his girlfriend, so the sniper holds his fire. The man leaves, and in a moment a woman and a boy emerge from the same building.They walk toward an oncoming line of US soldiers. Sensing that there is something beneath her robe, he watches intently. His handler gives him the greenlight to fire, but reminds him that prison awaits if he kills the boy and he turns out to be innocent. There is a brief glimpse of a long-handled grenade, fully exposed during the split second when she slips the weapon to the boy. Hoping that they are not intent on what he suspects, Kyle still holds his fire, but when the boy starts running, the sniper brings him down with one shot. The next one kills the woman. The thrown handgrenade falls short, exploding a few feet in front of the American soldiers.
Clearly, this will not be a conventional war with uniformed soldiers shooting at each other across well defined lines. Kyle wracks up many more kills, these all very defintely male terrorists. Soon he has gained the nickname “Legend,” soldiers grateful for his watchful eye that has saved the lives of many of his guys. He carries with him the same small New Testament that we had seen him using when he was a boy sitting in church with his family, though a comrade observes that he has never seen him read it. Kyle’s reputation has also spread among the Iraqi enemy so that they put a large bounty on his head.
In between his tours (four of them) Kyle, although he is able to thoroughly enjoy the birth of his first son, has trouble adjusting to ordinary life. He even feels a bit guilty that his guys are in danger back in Iraq while he is enjoying his family in safety. One of his tours is consumed with hunting down a Muslim sniper who also enjoys torturing any Iraqi who dares give information to Americans. The Muslim is dubbed “The Butcher” because of his practice of chopping off limbs of his victims. Back home Kyle becomes more and more detached from his growing family. Despite pleas from Taya, he refuses to talk about his experiences. He almost obsesses about his mission to protect his men.
This is the best film since Unforgiven wherein director Clint Eastwood treats the theme of violence and its effect on the human psyche. The film’s focus is narrow, never getting into the politics of the war. Kyle and his men do not question its purpose, nor ever mention or comment on President Bush. Their understanding of the big picture is similar to that of the foot soldier in the early stages of the Vietnam War—they are there to fight the bad guys. The only hint of dissent is when Chris and his brother Jeff, also now a soldier, briefly encounter each other at an airport, and Jeff, looking disillusioned, makes a negative comment on the war. We are shown almost no Muslims except for terrorists and one family that pays dearly for cooperating with Americans. The head of a family who offers them hospitality, turns out…well, see for yourself.
This, Mr. Eastwood’s second film in 2014 (Jersey Boys was released last June), is tense and tragic, part of the last being that just as Kyle is finding healing for himself by helping other troubled vets, he is killed by one of them. Bradley Cooper, beefed up and sporting a beard, deserves his Best Actor nomination, and though I would prefer Selma or Birdman to win the Best Picture award, it is easy to understand why the Academy members voted this excellent film for consideration.
People of faith who do not buy into the mythology of “God, country, family” that constitutes the Gospel According to the NRA will find plenty to think about and discuss in this film. How a person can read the Gospel According to Matthew and claim to have no qualms about all the people he has shot reveals the ability to compartmentalize one’s life—there is a “religion” box and that of “soldier.” How else could one live with such conflicting values pulling in opposite directions? Back in October of 2006 Mr. Eastwood released the film about the brutal Battle for Iwo Jima entitled Flags of Our Fathers. This was followed in February of 2007 with what amounted to his tribute to the courage of the Japanese defenders of the island, Letters From Iwo Jima (a subtitled film, at that!). It would be good if he could do the same for the Iraqi radicals, perhaps showing us why the Muslim sniper “The Butcher” became so anti-Western. The closest anyone has done this is David O. Russell in Three Kings, a film about the Persian Gulf War in which an Iraqi soldier explains that he is torturing an American soldier because American planes bombed and killed his family at the beginning of the war.
Some will like Sniper because of its well-staged battle scenes and moments of intense suspense, but let us hope too that it will help all of us understand why so many former combatants need help in re-entering civilian life. In the training sequence we see the humanity brutally forced out of recruits to make way for the detached ruthlessness with which they will use their combat skills to become killers. Surely our government can expend just as much time and treasury helping them to regain that humanity.
This review, with a set of discussion questions, will be in the 25th Anniversary issue of Visual Parables, Feb. 2014.