The highly anticipated and critically acclaimed big screen adaptation of SEAL sniper Chris Kyle’s autobiography ‘American Sniper’ is the second movie about Navy SEALs to come out in a year, following Peter Berg’s ‘Lone Survivor’ about a mission-gone-awry in Afghanistan and Marcus Luttrell’s struggle to survive behind enemy lines (see my review last January). Raking in $90.2 million over the MLK weekend, it would appear that America’s love affair with this elite brotherhood of warriors famous for giving Osama bin Laden his due is alive and well.
And for good reason too. Under Clint Eastwood’s skilled direction, AS is a riveting, compelling, gritty and suspenseful meditation on the complex realities of modern counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare and the warrior ethos. We’ve all seen the trailer in which Kyle (played superbly by Bradley Cooper) struggled with himself while he held a young boy approaching a group of US Marines with an IED in his sights. The turmoil and uncertainty shown on Cooper’s expression may have been exaggerated for dramatic effect, but let’s not fault Hollywood for humanizing our heroes for domestic consumption and the sake of our collective conscience. Notwithstanding Michael Moore’s negative opinions on American snipers, these men did their duty even though they’ve been sent by our politicians to fight the wrong war for the wrong reasons in Iraq, for “theirs is not to reason why, theirs is but to do and die,” to paraphrase Lord Alfred Tennyson from his famous poem.
But what about the battle scenes, you ask? The combat sequences are raw, visceral and intense, arguably the best I’ve seen since 2001’s ‘Black Hawk Down.’ Kudos should go to screenwriter Jason Hall for setting up the sniper duel between Kyle and “Mustafa,” the Olympian-turned-sniper fighting "infidels" in Iraq reminiscent of the legendary WWII sniper duel between Vasili Zaitsev and Erwin König during the Battle of Stalingrad as portrayed in William Craig's "Enemy at the Gates." Alternating between Kyle’s four tours in Iraq and his life back home with his wife Taya (Sienna Miller), the movie speeds up and slows down in concert with Kyle’s struggles to adapt to the doldrums of civilian life after experiencing the adrenaline highs of combat. Here's a man who never had a regular job and whose only other profession was a brief career as a cowboy on the local rodeo circuit (another job for adrenaline junkies). When he finally succumbed to his old lady’s endless nagging in order to save his marriage and retired from the navy to spend more time with his family, proving once again that women can conquer the hardiest of men like no armies can, his life lacked purpose and meaning as a part of him literally died. It is tragic and somewhat ironic that what ultimately gave him a semblance of direction and purpose in civilian life, his voluntary work helping veterans cope with PTSD, was also what killed him on that fateful day at the shooting range in 2013.