The movie opens with scenes from Kyle’s childhood. He and his father are hunting and Kyle kills his first deer. We then see him as a young boy at a church service listening to a minister preaching a sermon. The minister notes that we see our lives as a series of events and that we do not see the pattern of our lives that God perceives, especially since we do not see as God sees. During the sermon Kyle fingers a blue bound Bible that he will carry for the rest of his life and which appears in many scenes in the movie. The sermon establishes the method of the movie which consists of vignettes as Kyle proceeds through life.
When he intervenes in school to defend his younger brother from a bully and beats the daylights out of said bully, his father explains to him that night that people are divided up into three groups: sheep, predators and sheepdogs who protect the sheep from evil and harm, and that he and their mother are not raising either sheep or predators.
As a young man we see him as a rodeo performer, marking time in his life. A television news bulletin about an overseas bombing of a US embassy enrages him. We next see him enlisting in the Navy to be a SEAL. SEAL training is displayed with humorous touches emphasizing how rigorous it is. After he becomes a SEAL he meets his future wife and their relationship stateside is the counterpoise throughout the film to the War in Iraq. They are married shortly after 9-11.
The bulk of the movie consists of his four tours in Iraq, interspersed with scenes at home.
In Iraq Kyle quickly becomes a legend. In fact, that is the nickname he is given by the Marines he serves with: “Legend”. As a sniper he provides cover for the Marines as they go door to door in the type of urban fighting that typified much of the Iraq conflict. My guess is that this film will give most Americans their first true understanding of what the fighting in Iraq was like. Nineteenth century writer Ambrose Bierce, “Bitter Bierce”, once observed that wars, he was a combat veteran of the Civil War, were God’s way of teaching Americans geography. Sometimes a good film can perform the same function of teaching the general American public the grim realities of combat, and American Sniper does that for the fighting in Iraq. Peaceful settings can become deadly in an instant, and the line between enemy combatants and innocent civilians is thin to non-existent. The fighting is shown as being intense and deadly, albeit usually brief. Kyle eventually joins the Marines in their house to house fighting to show them SEAL techniques that might help save some of their lives. Kyle is the very essence of a hero: someone who goes into danger for others, in spite of the risk to his own life. The Iraqi Jihadists, who called him The Devil of Ramadi, put a bounty on his head. When it reaches $120,000 in the film Kyle jokes that it might tempt his wife on one of his bad days at home.
We see the moral quandaries that arose for Kyle as women and kids are used by the Jihadists against the American troops. We see Kyle shooting one boy and a woman as they attempt to attack an American convoy. Later in the movie we share Kyle’s relief when a boy puts down an rpg and runs away. Kyle notes however that he regrets none of the shots he made. What haunts him are the American troops he was unable to save.
There is almost no politics in the film. Kyle is an uncomplicated patriot who views the US as the greatest nation in the world and sees it as his duty to defend her. Some of his friends do come to question the Iraq War, viewing it as not worth the cost in American lives.
That such an apolitical film has aroused the ire of the Left is unsurprising however. The American fighting men in this film are depicted as ordinary men performing heroically in very tough circumstances and that does not play into the stereotype of the Left of American troops being losers, victims or monsters.
The tours in Iraq take a toll on Kyle and eventually his wife convinces him to leave the SEALS, his War finally coming to an end. In civilian life, he volunteers to help troops with physical and mental problems. On February 2, 2013 he was slain by a 25 year old former Marine he was attempting to help. No explanation exists for the slaying. The film ends with scenes from the funeral of Kyle. No one moved in the theater until the film was completed. I think most of the audience was just as stunned by the film as I was.
Bradley Cooper gives a career making performance as Kyle, portraying him as a complete human being. It is a three dimensional performance that causes us to care about Kyle as we view the arc of his life.
Men like Kyle deserve to be remembered. American Sniper is a fitting tribute to a man who went into harm’s way for the rest of us.