War is hell. Everybody knows that. We’ve been watching it since the dawn of film, but what those of us who have never served never see or experience is the end result of the hell these soldiers go through. A lot of them live in silent anguish and while others use it as fuel to better themselves and each other some are simply consumed by it.

This sums up American Sniper. It’s not so much a story of a soldier in the army but more a soldier who was fighting a war with himself. Chris Kyle is a profile of the American soldier who returns forever changed, and while the message here is obvious the film seems to have a lot of difficulty conveying it. Some of that comes from the structure of the film, but perhaps purposely by the film-makers who wish this work to be open to interpretation.

There’s also the question of whether the film is for the war or maybe against it, but regardless of what side of the fence you sit on the question nevertheless still remains. Are the physical and mental scarring necessary or is it a crying shame that these men and women come home in this fashion? Is it worse than coming home in a box?

The Story

Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is a profile shot of the average Texan. He’s big, burly, loves a beer and bull riding but there’s a focus lacking inside him. From an early age he’s shown by his father that he can be one of three people in this world and one role comes naturally to him. A belief in this philosophy lights a patriotic fire inside him and he finds its fuel in the Navy SEAL’s.

The film begins by presenting us with a clear parallel between two separate settings. There’s the everyday cowboy Chris Kyle who courts girlfriend and later wife Taya (Sienna Miller) and watches on in awe at news reports covering terrorist attacks. It then compares that to the the hardened American patriot sniper who shoots a snake on a firing range because it presents a target. The scene that sums up this transition is on his wedding day as, in a blink of an eye, the cowboy, who is all smiles and jokes, suddenly shifts to this steely-eyed, emotionless soldier as he learns he’s being deployed.

I was enthralled with this transition in personality, but that’s where the brilliance abruptly ends. The film arrives at the scene depicted in the trailer as Chris has to make an incredibly hard decision, one which rattles him big time and sets in motion a further major change in character. Over the course of the second act the film settles into this routine of trying to depict the effects each of Chris’ four tours have on him and his life when he returns home. Each time the witnessed atrocities get steadily worse Chris unravels further. But he never acknowledges any of it as despite being stateside his focus is entirely on the good vs. evil war and his intent on killing more “savages”.

Some films can get through two time-lines without fuss but this one struggled. Despite depictions of vain attempts to capture The Butcher (Mido Hamada) the film was quite dull at this point. It wasn’t until his final tour, as Chris comes closer and closer to the end of his tether, that things change. But that change is the film entering the clichéd generic action-flick realm, as Chris confronts his arch nemesis in the form of an Iraqi buccaneer / enemy snipers. Him and his squad becoming overwhelmed in a huge sandstorm and peaks with Chris being the last one to make it to the escape vehicle after almost being left behind.

After Chris returns home the film finally regains the magic it had begun with, only now the cowboy that once existed has now been replaced by the hardened veteran who stares into nothingness while the sounds of screams and explosions rattle around in his head. The seeds of post traumatic stress disorder, planted years earlier, are now in full bloom. But after revealing the self-imposed guilt of not being able to save everyone over a consultation with a psychiatrist he discovers a new lease on life. He puts on his cowboy boots, becoming the family man he should have always been, and leaves with a veteran in need of help, starting his life anew. Taya watches as she slowly closes the door, again waiting for her man to come home.

The Characters

There are two men named Chris Kyle in this film: the cowboy and the soldier. Over the course of events one consumes the other until only the Soldier remains and when there’s nothing left to feast on he begins hacking away at himself from the inside out until he’s a shell of a man. Cowboy Chris is as naïve as they come, seeing the war as a means to prove his mettle and do his country proud, but as soldier Chris comes to the fore he comes to see the war on terror in black and white. He’s unwavering in that belief to the point he becomes angered at his wife cracking wise about a bootleg enemy sniper compilation video. Even when questioned by his superiors regarding a targets innocence. He knows what’s what so there’s no doubt in his mind as to the dead man’s guilt. All his humanity has been drained from him.

When the two are in balance the nice-natured man and the hardened gunman compliment each other, but as this increasingly unnatural view on service and patriotism begins to take over even the dead-eyed marksman becomes unhinged. He looks on in confusion as his brother laments how horrible war is, something he can’t comprehend, and doubt sets in. After that he has two moments looking down the scope of his rifle, the first where he almost prays he doesn’t have to take the shot, the second acting as a final release. The soldier can’t take any more and decides it’s time for the cowboy to come home.

It’s an amazingly good character profile and Bradley Cooper does it justice but it never plumbed the depths. Because of that Bradley’s performance doesn’t reach the dizzying heights it could have. The window into Chris’ soul is in his eyes but we never get a decent look at what’s happening below. What we get is more a secondary perspective of someone viewing the dark abyss from the surface. Chris’ transition between sheep and sheepdog is believable but I never once felt I was in Chris’ shoes.

Taya is Chris’ only link to his old self, only the cowboy identifies with her. But the more time he spends becoming the soldier the greater the distance grows between the two. His reluctance to speak on his experiences, other than to reinforce his belief in the military system, slowly tears them apart, but I never really feel like the relationship was in any real trouble. Sure, she suggests that maybe one day he’ll return and she’ll be gone, but I never thought it would come to pass and sure enough it doesn’t.

Sienna Miller plays her role well, but due to the structure of the script her role is reduced to barely a supporting role. Her emotional range consists of frustration at not understanding Chris’ turmoil and sadness as she cries on the other end of the phone, not knowing if her husband is dead. The role of the family is more of an afterthought than a crucial piece of the puzzle, there’s not enough time devoted to it, hence it never becomes intimate enough. If the film had a different structure altogether it would’ve been able to overcome these issues, which brings me to my next point.

The Making Of

Structurally it’s all wrong and lacks focus. It begins like a drama but devolves into this action film. In one scene the SEAL’s are so fired up they go in guns blazing complete with music; I half expected “America, F*** Yeah!” to start playing. In between this clunky genre-transition the film struggles to maintain a clear message. One moment it seems to be championing the acts of war as necessary and in another it looks to be criticising these acts by showing the effects they have.

I’m not fussed about the entire cast as this really is the story of Chris & Taya Kyle, but the rest are little more than scenery. The other SEAL’s sprout disposition and all that aren’t American are depicted as shady, manipulative, and brutal. One is a polar opposite of Chris in that he’s a sniper with his own motivation’s only he’s picking off SEAL’s. Two snipers: one is good and one is evil. You can guess which is which.

Then there’s the man with the drill, who is more like an exaggerated horror movie villain than a religious extremist. I won’t go into it but that scene was rough to watch and I know the film-makers will justify its inclusion by pointing out the non-fiction source but after some research I discovered that half of this film, if not more, is fabricated. In comparison to the man who wrote the biography the Chris Kyle depicted here is in many ways fictitious, and the exploits are either embellished or questionable.

But it’s not so much that they re-imagined events or characters because that’s now the norm in cinema, it’s how much of an effect it had on the finished product. The film continually insists we focus on Chris’ heroic tours, but the real drama comes from his life after his discharge. Chris’ battle with PTSD and how he survived was glossed over, and events were left out that could have given this film some sorely needed focus. Why not depict key moments such as the incident in which Chris, at his lowest ebb, drunkenly crashes his truck? Why not go further into the creation of FITCO and the aid he gave to veteran’s? Why not the alleged gas-station car-jacking that left two men dead? And what about Edward Ray Routh? There’s a whole parallel story to be told there.

But none of this compares to the worst aspect of this film. Some of the post-production work on this film is laughable. If you haven’t seen it than you’ve more than likely heard of the plastic baby doll. There’s also a brief shot with Chris carrying an injured soldier only for their clothing to remain ever-so partially in frame before the editor froze the film. How the hell did they miss these? It may seem over the top reaction but I was still amazed.

In Conclusion

American Sniper has all the potential in the world, but they just got it wrong. If it were a depiction of Chris’ home-life after the war, complete with flashbacks to key moments in his time overseas as well as the story of Eddie Ray then maybe there’d be no slow second act and Sienna Miller’s screen time would become more valuable. It could be, in my opinion, worthy of the accolades it’s receiving. Instead it’s a swing and a miss.

But there was the average movie-going side of me that thought there were some bright moments. When it wasn’t debating genre with itself it was really good, case in point the beginning and ending, and that does reflect on my score. It’s conveyed message wasn’t clear enough for mine but that does reinforce my belief that the question of what’s best for PSTD-suffering war veteran’s is deliberately being left open for debate.

If I have to choose I say it’s worth having a look but don’t expect the film that’s been nominated for best picture at the Oscars. Instead enjoy the better moments, interpret it however you imagine and be content. As for whether Chris Kyle’s experiences left him better off or worse is a moot point now. He’s at peace.

5 of 10