“I loved what I was doing. Maybe war isn’t really fun, but I certainly was enjoying it. It suited me.”
We don’t meet this guy in “American Sniper.”
In his autobiography of the same title, 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.”
The Kyle of the movie, played by Bradley Cooper, is a much more nuanced individual. The harsher edges of the persona the real-life Kyle presents in the book have been sanded down by Cooper, screenwriter Jason Hall and Clint Eastwood, who directs.
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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, and the sorrow he feels comes when he’s not able to save all of them. That’s the core of the book and the movie.
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, 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 up close, 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 also is there in the impact it has on his marriage. In the book and movie, Kyle’s wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), provides the counterpoint to his warrior ethos. She points out that he’s more dedicated to his fellow SEALs than to her and their children, and she does not miss the corroding effect prolonged time in combat has had on him. “Even when you’re here, you’re not here. I see you, I feel you, but you’re not here,” she tells him.
The picture diverges from Kyle’s real-life account in a number of significant ways, not the least of which is the movie’s depiction of a cat-and-mouse contest between Kyle and an Iraqi sniper who once competed in the Olympics. They spend the film trying to find and kill each other. Such a sniper existed, but “I never saw him,” Kyle writes.
There are a number of other divergences and cinematic inventions. All movies based on real-life incidents take such liberties with the truth. “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Lone Survivor” are two recent examples. Movies always shape reality, merging and tweaking factual situations, creating their own reality, distinct and apart from the events that inspire them. Movies are their own thing.
The movie reality created by Eastwood is powerful and intense. Its many battle scenes are singularly gripping, and the picture is arguably Eastwood’s best since “Unforgiven.”