Wayne Kyle only appears fleetingly at the beginning of Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial offering, but his words and mantra live long and strong throughout, nowhere more so than in the head and psyche of his eldest son, Chris, played with surprising gravitas by Bradley Cooper.
To paraphrase Chris’s father: There are three types of people in this world, sheep, wolves and sheep dogs. You are a sheep dog; don’t ever let me find out that you’re a wolf.
Essentially, Chris knows he has a duty to protect those ‘sheep’ unable or incapable of protecting themselves from life’s aggressors; ‘wolves.’
A noble stance in essence, no doubt and one that Chris lives and breathes in his daily existence, but one, when applied to the unsavoury business of war and the need for some kind of work/life balance, threatens to tear him and those he loves apart.
Everything seems to serve as a trigger for Chris’s ingrained or possibly even innate need to protect the vulnerable, never more so than when he becomes aware that his brother (also in the forces) has been deployed to Iraq too. This causes Chris to down his sniper rifle and join the foot patrols from where, in Chris’s head at least, he can better protect his brothers in arms. His own brother’s deployed whereabouts he’s apparently not actually even fully aware of.
This level of devotion to his Navy Seal comrades, be that in the guise of chief protector or self-appointed vengeance-seeker, continually over-rides the importance of his role as a husband and father, forcing him back for tour after tour to the battlefields of Iraq where his position as America’s top sniper is both essential and unrivalled.
The stakes, on both a personal and professional level intensify with each sortie and the very real threat of loss of both comrades in the battlefield and of his cherished family unit, always hangs heavy in the air.
It’s a credit to Eastwood’s direction that he tells Chris’s tale in such a way that this here lily-livered pacifist even found himself emotionally rooting for this most highly decorated of marksmen and is proof, if any were needed, that American Sniper is not your average shoot-em-up war tale. Instead, it has a real depth to it and works on a number of superbly considered levels and all of this without really even needing to broach the rather sticky subject of the validity of the Iraq war or indeed any war. That is very much left up to the viewer. Whilst hard issues of morality are prevalent throughout, this is not a film that chooses to focus so much on the rights or wrongs of war in general, instead, concentrating on its psychological impact upon those it affects, both directly and indirectly.
It was only at its end that I realised American Sniper is actually based on a true story. There are moments throughout (and forgive the rather off-kilter tennis analogy) when the screenplay ‘lobs one up,’ ready for the big Hollywood smash-down and then wrong-foots us entirely with a Michael Chang-esque under arm serve, not least, some shades of The Wild Geese reworked towards the end.
Of course, what happens in life happens, but life is not a Hollywood film, no matter how hard they try to sell it to you and a screenplay such as this, based upon a genuinely true story, benefits immeasurably as a result.
It’s a film that makes no secret of its pride and reverence for a great American patriot and the Stars and Stripes are in abundance, lining the packed streets in his honour, but it’s not an over-bearing sentiment; there is good balance to this story throughout, the sign, I certainly believe, of a really good war film.
And American Sniper is just that; a really good war film.