Chris Kyle, the U.S. Navy SEAL whose autobiography inspired this Clint Eastwood drama, was shot to death in February 2013—not in Iraq, where he earned the distinction of being the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history, with 160 confirmed kills, but at a Texas shooting range more than three years after his honorable discharge. An advocate for veterans, Kyle had gone to the range with Eddie Ray Routh, a 25-year-old former marine who suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder and who now faces murder charges for allegedly killing Kyle and his friend Chad Littlefield. For legal reasons, Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall are forced to treat the incident obliquely, with a title offering the barest description of what happened; this frustrating anticlimax is followed by an end-credits montage of news footage showing Kyle’s funeral procession along Interstate 35, which drew hundreds of onlookers, and a memorial service at the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Whether the filmmakers should have waited a few more years until they had the full story is a question I’ll leave to them, but the blacked-out ending of American Sniper seems typical of a movie that can’t find a credible perspective on its subject, despite a winning performance from Bradley Cooper in the title role. Kyle watches his friends die right in front of him but watches the enemy die mostly from a distance, through a telescopic sight, which may partly explain his unflappable moral certitude (“I’m willing to meet my creator and answer for every shot I took,” he declares at one point). He was one of those guys whose loyalty to his fellow soldiers helped insulate him from the reality of what he did in battle—including, at one point, shooting down a child who was about to lob a grenade—and the tragic irony of his death seems so far outside the movie’s frame of reference that you wonder whether the filmmakers weren’t actually relieved that they didn’t have to re-create it onscreen.
That isn’t to say that American Sniper is completely lacking in nuance; the ongoing tension between Cooper’s sympathetic performance and Kyle’s unthinking zest for killing “bad guys” more than carries the story. Yet Kyle doesn’t become an American hero (or at least a Texas one) by being a nice guy; he does it by notching his rifle more than anyone else, by wrapping himself in the flag, and by glamorizing his ugly gift for splattering people at great distances. Eastwood knows how to make a war movie all right, and the scenes of urban combat in Fallujah and Sadr City are gripping stuff; he also feels for the loved ones of soldiers killed, maimed, or driven crazy in battle (the scenes of Kyle struggling to function as a family man between his tours of duty are as involving as the combat sequences). But the veteran filmmaker may finally have disproven that old saw that every war movie is really an antiwar movie; in American Sniper, the only bad thing about war is having to come home from it.