"American Sniper" opens looking down the barrel of a military sniper rifle. The view moves in close to reveal the bearded face of Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper) behind the scope. He watches U.S. Marines below him searching houses before spotting an Iraqi mother and a young boy.
"She's got an RKG Russian grenade, she's handing it to the kid," he says. And with that the audience enters the sniper's world of split-second decisions. Will he kill a child in order to protect Marines?
Director Clint Eastwood interrupts the opening tension and goes back to Kyle's childhood in Texas. He grows up, he attends school, he becomes a bull-riding cowboy.
Then he watches news coverage of the twin bombings of the U.S. embassies in Africa. The young Kyle is compelled to do something about it, and he decides to join the Navy to become a SEAL.
Eastwood doesn't linger on these scenes for long. In short order Kyle finds himself an elite Navy SEAL sniper in Iraq with a his pregnant wife (played by Sienna Miller) waiting for him stateside.
The movie follows the Iraq war from Kyle's perspective, often behind the scope of his rifle. There are plenty of action sequences, and all come off as accurate and authentic. The technical details of sniper life are meticulously captured. But where the movie really shines is in the realistic portrayal of Kyle's post-traumatic stress as it grows over his four tours to Iraq.
Military movies have a tendency to give a cartoonish view of the "damaged veteran" coming home from the war and losing it ("Brothers" comes to mind), but screenwriter Jason Hall and director Eastwood manage to avoid a similar outcome. And Cooper handles both the subtleties and the chaos of the warrior's mind with a deft touch. No cliches here.
Watch WATM's exclusive one-on-one interview with "American Sniper" screenwriter Jason Hall:
In "American Sniper," we see a heroic man who endures terrible trauma in war, and like many, he's affected by it. He's distant, doesn't really want to talk about what he's done, and has problems connecting with his loved ones. A similar story plays out among real veterans with PTSD.
With the film's more accurate portrayal of PTSD in Kyle, viewers are allowed to see how specific events — including another time later in the movie where Kyle has to decide whether to shoot and kill a child — end up shaping him as not only the deadliest American sniper, but also a man deeply affected by what he had to do.
Cooper's brilliant portrayal will serve the uninitiated with a realistic look at post-traumatic stress and its affect on some veterans. Viewers will see that Kyle had problems, but ultimately he was able to manage it and become a better husband and father in the process.
With countless Marines saved by his efforts while watching over them in Iraq, the now-discharged Kyle meets with a Marine he's trying to help overcome PTSD. And as we know, Kyle's story doesn't close on an uplifting note as he is murdered at a Texas gun range in Feb. 2013.
It's a sad (and perhaps too abrupt) closing to an incredible film, but it serves Kyle's legacy well. He lived and ultimately died trying to save lives.
Overall "American Sniper" is a very well-done war film, and Bradley Cooper brilliantly captures the essence of Chris Kyle.