In his autobiography “American Sniper,” Navy SEAL Chris Kyle repeatedly emphasizes how much he savored the kick of the kill. “I was trained for war,” he writes. Back home between tours to Iraq (he was deployed in four), he writes, “I missed it. I missed the excitement and the thrill. I loved killing bad guys.”
We don’t meet that guy in Clint Eastwood’s movie based on the book.
The movie Kyle, played by Bradley Cooper, is a much more nuanced individual. The harsher edges of the persona Kyle presents in the book have been sanded down by Cooper, screenwriter Jason Hall and director Eastwood.
Cooper’s Kyle is a dedicated, unquestionably brave and salty warrior, but he never comes across as a war lover. His motivating impulse is to protect the men he serves with. That’s the core of the book and the movie. (Kyle was murdered in the U.S. in 2013, allegedly by a fellow veteran.)
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Cooper’s is a performance of great subtlety. Near-constant combat over the course of multiple deployments — staged with nerve-wracking intensity by Eastwood — changes Kyle slowly, almost imperceptibly.
The sniper’s craft is a paradoxical one. He kills from a distance, often many hundreds of yards away, yet the killing is an intimate act because he’s observing his target through the magnifying lenses of a scope, studying the individual’s expressions and actions, until, with careful deliberation, he pulls the trigger.
Kyle, credited with 160 kills, making him the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history, peers through that scope and makes that fateful decision a lot. Over time, a kind of deadening creeps into his eyes. The accumulation of the terrible things he’s seen eats at him.
The cost of war is also there in the impact it has on his marriage. Kyle’s wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), provides the counterpoint to his warrior ethos. “I need you,” she tells him, “to be human again.”
The picture diverges from Kyle’s real-life account in a number of significant ways, not least of which is the movie’s depiction of a cat-and-mouse duel between Kyle and an Iraqi sniper who once competed in the Olympics. They spend the picture trying to find and kill each other.
Such a sniper existed, but “I never saw him,” Kyle writes.
There are a number of other such divergences and cinematic inventions in “Sniper.” All movies based on real-life incidents take such liberties. They create their own reality, distinct and apart from the events that inspire them.
The movie reality created by Eastwood is powerful and intense, and “American Sniper” is arguably his best picture since “Unforgiven.”
Soren Andersen: firstname.lastname@example.org