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‘American Sniper’: Errant target?

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REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For 21st Century Media

Chris Kyle was a United States Navy SEAL, who has been proclaimed as the most lethal in this country’s military history. He is credited with 160 confirmed kills and an additional 95 probable kills.

“American Sniper” is a celebration of Kyle’s proficiency as a gung-ho killing machine.

In the film’s opening scene, set in Fallujah, Iraq, Kyle is agonizing as he ponders his first assignment. From his rooftop position, he espies a young Arab boy and his hijab-wearing mother. They are walking towards he platoon unit that Kyle has been tasked with protecting.  Are they innocent civilians or insurgents?  Kyle must make a split second decision and decide whether they pose a risk to the American troops. He notices that the boy is carrying something and it sure isn’t a Koran. Kyle speculates that it might be an improvised explosive device. As Kyle’s spotter warns him, “If you’re wrong, they’ll fry you.” Undaunted, Kyle pulls the trigger and a bullet whirs through the air, striking the boy and killing him instantaneously.  As he starts to fall, his mother grabs the item from her son’s hands and begins to throw it toward the approaching platoon. Before she can do so, Kyle launches a second shot at her. The item that she had been carrying turns out to be a bomb. It explodes at her feet.

Kyle’s decision is vindicated. What’s more, he is no longer a virgin as a sniper.

In a series of flashbacks, we learn Kyle’s background. As a pre-teen, Kyle displayed a precocious propensity for accuracy as a marksman. He grows up to be a marginally successful rodeo rider. After being cuckolded, he hits the bar scene. There, he meets Taya (Sienna Miller), the woman, who becomes his wife and mother of his children.

The film follows Kyle as his kill count escalates. With a mix of jocularity and genuine awe, Kyle’s fellow SEALs dub him, “The Legend.” During a subsequent deployment, Kyle’s adversaries vilify him as “Shaitan Ar-Ramadi” (“The Devil of Ramadi”). Meanwhile, American troops are plagued by an Arab sniper, whose skills rival Kyle’s.

Bradley Cooper made a total overhaul to play the film’s subject.  The actor  grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia. He is an alumnus of a  private high school and Georgetown University, where he scored a baccalaureate in English literature. Did I neglect mention that he rowed competitively, has an MFA in acting, and speaks fluent French? Clearly, Cooper is a modern–day Renaissance man. Yet, in “American Sniper,” he is altogether convincing as a rough-hewn redneck from Odessa, Texas.

Cooper manifested enormous dedication to infusing his portrayal of Kyle with authenticity. As evidenced from his prior screen performances, Cooper already had a well-honed musculature. However, to play Kyle, he bulked up with an additional forty pounds. To do so, he consumed 8,000 calories a day and had a daily routine of working out for four hours. Cooper augmented this grueling regimen of twice-daily vocal lessons to capture Kyle’s down home drawl. As a final touch, Cooper trained with Kevin Lacz, a Navy SEAL sniper, who had served alongside Kyle. As a result of his intensive preparation, Cooper provides a lived in feel to his character, even though their respective backgrounds were much different. Instead of playing another urbane, romantic lead, Cooper displays his versatility by portraying  an action hero. He is particularly effective at conveying Kyle’s struggles to deal with PTSD.

“American Sniper” has a well-defined and oft-repeated theme. Kyle isn’t a malevolent murderer. He’s simply on a noble mission to protect his comrades in arms.

The screenplay by Jason Hall is based on the book “American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History,” written by Kyle along with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice. A reading of the book reveals a far less appealing perspective on Kyle. In it, he comes across as a bloodthirsty Islamophobe. Kyle describes killing as “fun” and something he “loved” doing.

While promoting his book, Kyle was involved in a situation, which called his credibility into question. He claimed that he had punched out former professional wrestler and Minnesota governor, Jesse Ventura, for badmouthing the war effort and President Bush. Ventura insisted that he had never met Kyle or even heard of him. When Kyle persisted with his dubious account, Ventura responded with a libel lawsuit. A jury trial resulted in a judgment against Kyle for $1.8 million. The judgment was sustained on appeal. The film studiously ignores this unsavory episode.

“American Sniper” is a taut action film replete with a fine, measured performance by Bradley Cooper.  It has efficient, if uninspired, direction by 84-year old screen legend, Clint Eastwood.

Nevertheless, I just can’t help but wondering about Kyle’s exploits.  Was he a genuine hero or a self-mythologizing fraud?  Given Kyle’s unfettered antipathy toward Iraqis and zeal for killing, just how careful was he in vetting his victims? Does “American Sniper” like its protagonist, have an errant target?

**1/2 R (for strong and disturbing war violence, and language throughout including some sexual references) 134 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

 

 

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