“Our lives unfold before us like puzzling reflections, in a mirror.”
— Pastor (Troy Vincent), American Sniper
“You got him.” Wayne Kyle (Ben Reed) is proud of his young son Chris (Cole Konis), who looks briefly astonished that he’s shot the deer in his gun sight. As Chris runs to look at the body, his father watches as the boy bounds into the tall-grass distance. It’s an image you might see in any number of coming of age stories, a father and son bonding over a lesson in hunting. Here, however, the next frame might be unexpected, a close shot of the carcass that pans up and over to show Chris’ approach, still bounding, dropping his gun as his father appears a small, distinct shadow behind him.
For a moment, you might imagine American Sniper is underlining the result of the hunt, the dead object so large and dark. But the scene shifts again, as Wayne instructs his son, “You don’t ever leave your rifle in the dirt,” then praises his boy, “You’ve got a gift.” Chris has absorbed this lesson and then some, you know already, for the scene that triggers this sun-dappled flashback has the grown-up Navy SEAL Chris (Bradley Cooper) on a rooftop in urban Iraq, using his gift, again. This time, he aims his rifle at a kid who’s carrying an anti-tank grenade toward an American tank and soldiers. This time, he looks anything but eager or astonished when he takes the decision to shoot the child. This time, his brow furrows and his jaw sets. When he shoots, you see no body.
The film’s juxtaposition of these two scenes makes clear the burden of Chris’ gift, as do a couple of other boyhood images, beginning with a glimpse at a dresser where he keeps a prayer book, a football and plastic army men. Longer scenes show a schoolyard, where Chris protects his little brother (Luke Sunshine) from bullies, and then the dinner table, where Wayne insists that those with the “gift of aggression” must use it to protect the sheep from the wolf. In another movie, this speech might be an inspiring exhortation, but here it’s unnerving. As dad slaps his belt on the table as a warning, asserting his boys can be neither wolves nor sheep, mom (Elise Robertson) shushes him, but Chris nods and his father says, “You know who you are.”
He does and he doesn’t. For most of Clint Eastwood’s movie, Chris takes his father’s designation to heart, even as he comes to see that delineations among wolves, dogs, and sheep are rarely obvious. Like William Munny (Unforgiven) or Walt Kowalski (Gran Torino), he’s an uncommonly good shot and a reluctant hero, half-believing the stories about him but also too aware of what’s wrong with them. Chris tells himself, his longsuffering wife Taya (Sienna Miller), and his Navy therapist (Robert Clotworthy) that what he does is right, that he’s saving more lives than he takes during his four deployments, 2003-2008. Specifically, he says, he saves American lives, his men’s lives, and so fulfilling the patriotic purpose of the war in Iraq.
In order to present this purpose as Chris assumes it, the film must omit context or considerations of how the war was declared and waged, whether political decisions were flawed. Chris can only look ahead, can only use his gift as his father instructed, can only see the world as his father described it. The film can’t tease out the possible pathologies of this direction, its cultural and political resonances. Even as the film celebrates Chris’ achievements, though, it shows his discomfort when his fellow soldiers in Iraq call him “Legend,” owing to the 160 kills with which he’s credited.
In an unreal world, in the video-gamey world conjured when Chris’ bullet finds its target in emphatic slow motion, his legend might be simple. American Sniper, based on Chris Kyle’s memoir, doesn’t wholly invest in that world. Instead, it leaves demonstrations of faith to those who celebrate Chris, who commend his achievements and thank him for the violence his gift allows him to make, including the veteran who remembers Chris saving him in Iraq. Spotting him in a stateside auto shop, the veteran and earnestly tells Chris’ young son, “Your dad, he’s a hero.” Even as the vet salutes him (“My family thanks you for your service”), Chris’ visible awkwardness here gives way immediately to a scene in the maternity ward, where he watches helplessly as his newborn daughter wails. Here his gift of aggression turns frightening, as he pounds on the glass and his face turns red, the nurse inside turned away, oblivious.
This juxtaposition of scenes isn’t plot-driven as at film’s start. It’s not obvious that being called a hero in front of his boy leads to his upset as new dad to his daughter, but the thematic trajectory is hard to miss. As much as the legend might be formed by that primal moment when his dad slammed his belt on the dinner table, here it’s unraveling. When Taya accuses him of abandoning the family — “I’m making memories by myself, I have no one to share them with,” she says with baby daughter on her lap — Chris’ reaction is to return to the fight, where he feels necessary, where he can save more sheep.
You might take these moments as examples of Chris’ memories, less literal than impressionistic, and as such, they tell a more convincing story than the movie’s generic contrivances. These include, for instance, its use of the Syrian-born sniper, Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), who serves as Chris’ mirror image, an expert hunter of men who takes aim from rooftops, elusive and legendary. For several scenes, Mustafa and Chris trade sniper triumphs, competing so as to make you ready for a showdown. That Mustafa is working for a man called “the Butcher” (Mido Hamada), linked to al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, makes him both fact-based and fantastic, that is, like Chris.
While Mustafa is too neatly reduced to a point in Chris’ vengeance plot, American Sniper is less efficient when it comes to dealing with a primary fact within its legend, that Chris was murdered during production, by a former Marine at a Texas shooting range. It’s a terrible irony, a terrible end, terribly painful. And the film can only allude to it in a blurry goodbye scene, then footage of his funeral procession, people with US flags lining the highway, unknowing emblems of the gift with which Chris struggled throughout his life.