By now you’ve already seen the trailer of American Sniper, and a good number of you have already seen the movie. You’ve certainly seen some of the other reviews, and some of the media controversy the film has stirred up. Thus, the question becomes: what can we add, without spoiling it for those who have yet to see the movie?
Hey! Impossible mission? Sounds like it’s right up our alley.
There’s several levels in this story: it’s a bio, a war story, a tragedy. It’s also a tale of a man’s and a family’s progress amid challenges that are expected, and the other kind of challenges, the ones that just happen to you regardless of what your own thoughts and desires might be.
Clint Eastwood’s version of American Sniper, starring Bradley Cooper, is an incredibly on point and accurate portrayal of Chris Kyle. It sticks fairly close to the story in Kyle’s book (we’ll mention some of the deviations). We previously reviewed that book in these pages, and we liked it a lot. (We also reviewed his posthumous American Guns). We even reviewed Kyle’s only TV-series appearance, with several other SOF vets and several second-call Hollywood stars, on the “reality” show Stars Earn Stripes, in which a gang of surprisingly nervy Hollywood and sports celebrities competed in military-themed events, with cash donations to military charities at stake. So it’s fair to say that, before his murder, we were watching indulgently as Kyle grinned his way to the strange status of America’s Celebrity SEAL.
Eastwood and, especially, Cooper, have been blueprint-faithful to the character of Chris Kyle, even when they’ve diverged from his true story for the sake of Hollywood storytelling. The movie is, with some irritating exceptions, true to the many experiences of today’s SOF quiet professional: motivations, training, combat, the almost indecent thrill of combat victory and the indescribable heartache of combat loss.
The movie is particularly good about handling the process of reintegration to home, family, and stateside life in general. It is almost too good, almost creepily good. A lot of vets will be watching some scenes, the impact of which we won’t spoil with detailed descriptions, and think: “Crap, was I like that when I came back? I guess I was.”
You do not have to go far to find a reviewer praising the film for its “message,” or condemning it, for the same reason. These reviewers are missing the story entirely. The message is a deep and personal one. It is that, as Sienna Miller says as Taya Kyle, “You don’t think this war has changed you, but it has.” And that’s the message — how war does change you, but if you’re lucky and grounded, like most of us, like Chris Kyle, with his solid family, it doesn’t change your character. For really, what ever does?
Many of the reviewers who are deep into the politics of the film (politics that are scarcely there in the first place) are merely projecting their own beliefs onto the movie. Eastwood didn’t make an all-American flag-waver, like Wayne’s The Green Berets, here. He also didn’t make a typical Hollywood Iraq War emetic, either. The fans of the latter genre have been bashing American Sniper in close formation; the two most (unintentionally) entertaining were Dennis Jett’s review in The New Republic, which he wrote after seeing the trailer, and some acting coach’s strangled cry of heartache, that gets to his real issue in the fifth or sixth paragraph… George Bush!!1!
For the record, George Bush does not appear in this movie. But he does show up in a certain kind of review.
Acting and Production
Cooper, most successful as a comic actor until now, is going to have a long and deep dramatic career, if this is any indication. He’s so incredibly good that people may forget that he was “the guy from the Hangover movies” before being cast as Kyle (Cooper also shared production credit). And Sienna Miller is absolutely convincing as Taya Kyle. It was only after seeing the movie that we saw an interview clip which told us she’s English, blonde, and beautiful in a Hollywood-glamorous way. Somehow she made a perfect showing as American, brunette, and beautiful in a girl-next-door way. The usual American or Brit trying to fake the other’s accent is dreadful. Miller isn’t. Hell, after seeing this, she could probably pull off Blofeld in the next Bond. We wouldn’t bet against her.
The rest of the cast is there for the exposition, mostly; Kyle’s ties with his teammates are implied more than shown.
We don’t have any idea how they got some of the shots they did, but I suspect that they’ve done some novel, or at least rare, technical stuff behind the cameras. We saw the movie with Kid and three other friends in an IMAX theater (the smaller sort that’s in a metroplex, not one of the big, purpose-built “real IMAX” ones) and were impressed. The audio was clear, which it isn’t always, these days.
We complain all the time about movies set in “Iraq” or “Afghanistan” that look like they were shot in the same California hills that have seen 500 B-westerns, and in “Hadji villages” that are clearly the same old “Mexican village” or “Dodge city” backlots with a day of half-hearted set dressing. We won’t do that here. The locations that stood in for Iraqi ones were fairly close. There are some giveaways in the picture above, like all the red brick. Still, somebody cared enough to try.
Accuracy and Weapons
Guns are front and center in any sniping story, and you want the guns to be right. The guns that screen-Kyle uses track closely with the ones that real-Kyle said he used in the book. In his early tours, he totes a Remington 700 in .300 Win Mag with a McMillan stock. (You can even read the rollmark, “Remington 700,” on one shot). On his last tour, he does have a McMillan .338. Defensively, he carries a short-barreled M4 (predating the Mk18) or Mk18. He and other SEAL snipers also use gas guns (Mk11, Mk12) and this is all accurate. Other SEALs carry Mk46 and Mk48 machine guns. For pistols, the SEALs carry SIG 226s, which are correct, as opposed to the Beretta M9s in Lone Survivor. The SEALs shoot suppressed a lot, and, mirabile dictu, the sounds are the sounds of suppressed rifles, not the usual Hollywood whifffff. The suppressor is the SOPMOD-correct Knight’s Armament Company QDSS-NT4.
The guns of the Iraqi enemy are not neglected, either. Iraqi snipers use Dragunovs and PSLs, but also, a weapons cache reveals a stashed Tabuk. Not many people in Hollywood could tell a Tabuk from Timbuktu, so somebody went out on a limb to get that detail right. Bravo Zulu, whoever you were. (According to IMFDB, it was film armorer Independent Studio Services, who had Two Rivers Arms Company build the Tabuks). All the other stuff in the cache is stuff you find in a good cache: AKMSes, Russian-pattern ‘nades, RPG-7Vs.
This is what an SVD looks like from the operator end. The dashed, curved line lets you range a 1.7m high man from 200 to 1000m. Using the holdover chevrons depends on what range you zeroed at.
One small detail — when they show the view through an American sniper scope, they show a generic mildot reticle, or generic mill-crosshatch. Close enough (and we don’t presume to know what SEAL Team Three was running in Iraq). But they show something similar for the Dragunov, instead of the Dragunov’s crosshair + stadia lines for ranging + hold-over chevrons.
This may have been because, while the information on the Dragunov scope is useful to you if you’ve been trained to use it, it isn’t much use at all if you’re trying to watch a movie through it.
Nobody’s too worked up about reticles. But we’ve heard some complaints because some liberties have been taken with the facts of Kyle’s story, to punch the plot up and to provide some closure. This includes several deliberate departures from Kyle’s book and previous interviews. These include:
- Telephone calls home on a satphone whilst in combat (but they did get the particular satphone model SOF were carrying during those years exactly right, a detail that amazed us).
- A sniper duel with a named sniper who was supposedly an Olympic medalist. This appears to have been Hollywood punch-up; Chris was hunting a specific sniper, but didn’t get a chance to get him. According to Wikipedia (yeah, we know, that’s “according to random Internet bullshit), the sniper duel aspect was added to the screenplay when Steven Spielberg was involved as director.
- An Iraqi torturer who punished “collaborators” with an electric drill. This actually did happen, but it does not appear to have happened to anyone tied to Kyle.
- A pair of very long sniper shots. One is Kyle’s and does duplicate both the distance and the difficulty of a shot he actually took, but the movie changes the circumstances (sorry for vagueness; trying to avoid spoilers). The other is taken by an Iraqi with a Dragunov at nearly 2,000 meters. In expert hands, with match or sniper ammo, the Drag is a minute-of-angle gun, but in fact Iraqi sniper shots tend to be short range urban shots (<400m, often <200m, and sometimes <100m).
The ugly fact is that, while movies kind of rely on the plot being wrapped up neatly on schedule, for those of us whose tours are not going to be made into movies, there’s no closure to be had. Just a lot of open-ended questions really. You have to work it out on your own. (And come to think about it, Chris Kyle’s real life was like that, even though a version of it has been made into a movie).
The bottom line
American Sniper is the best movie about the Iraq War you’re likely to see in 2015. It’s one of the best depictions of the burden of war on warriors since… hmm… 12 O’Clock High. (Many movies since have gripped the third rail of preachy didacticism instead of the audience heartstrings they were reaching for). It’s also one of the best Eastwood directing efforts, and he’s been doing that a long time (lord love a duck, the guy is 84 years old!) Dulce et decorum est that it has already earned more for its producers than all of the preachy war-is-heck-no,-make-that-ick crap that Hollywood has sluiced out over the last dozen-plus years. Put together.
As a SEAL film, it beats the last quality leader, Act of Valor, on the strength of what Hollywood really does well, when it all comes together: script, acting, direction, cinematography. As a SEAL film, it beats the last box office leader, the deeply flawed Zero Dark Thirty.
As a Special Forces veteran, we’re profoundly heartened that there is such a thing as a SEAL film genre, and that we have not got one. Frankly, we’d rather be the ones reviewing films about them, than having a bunch of frogmen reviewing films about us.
For more information
These sites relate to this particular film.
That’s going to take a while.
- Rotten Tomatoes review page: