Navy SEAL Chris Kyle became legendary for making over 160 verified kills during his four tours of duty in Iraq. Dubbed the deadliest sniper in American history, the Odessa, Texas-born cowboy returned home to his wife Taya and kids, wrote (with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice) the bestselling memoir American Sniper, and began a troubled, rocky transition to civilian life. Then, a former Marine suffering from PTSD turned a gun on him and shot him dead at a firing range.
Talk about a great, resonant story. There’s no doubting the sincerity and passion of actor Bradley Cooper, director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall in bringing that saga to the screen. So, why is it a good movie instead of a great one? Cooper, bulked up, earnest, and oozing cowpoke charm, is terrific and persuasive playing an unquestioning, brave, confident guy who, stunned by the 9-11 attack on “the greatest country in the world,” flourishes under the rigors of military training and enters the hell of Fallujah with a clear sense of duty and purpose. He’s there in Iraq because: “There’s evil here.”
The movie then becomes a series of tense, well-shot, immersive sequences detailing the fog of war in a landscape of children and women carrying bombs and unregenerate monsters lurking behind every door. This isn’t a movie of shadings or complexities, that’s for sure. As our hero relentlessly tries to eliminate a monster known as “The Butcher,” we understand that Kyle — who thinks of people in Iraq as savages — loves war, loves fighting the good fight, is single-minded in his pursuit, and always has the backs of his comrades.
Trouble is, as good as and well-shot by Tom Stern as the scenes are, the sequences become repetitive without any deeper insight into what our sniper is going through and the damage being done to him. These workmanlike battle scenes – like something out of a first-person shooter game — alternate with others in which an increasingly detached, inarticulate Kyle and his wife (Sienna Miller, doing plenty with an undernourished, thankless role) grow more and more estranged. “Even when you’re here, you’re not here,” she complains in one of the movie’s more unfortunate lines of dialogue.
By the tragic and melancholic but muddled fadeout, once Kyle has declared that he’s had enough, the movie should have unnerved and inspired us while making us care about a complex hero deeply changed by a highly controversial war. Instead, we’re left hungry for the film — and a depiction of Chris Kyle — that might have been. ** ½