They call him the Legend.
You wouldn’t necessarily know it by looking at him. He’s not eight feet tall or covered in jangling medals—just a burly ol’ cowboy with a baseball cap and Texas drawl. But put him behind a sniper rifle, and Chris Kyle is war-torn Iraq’s own avenging angel—a hand of judgment laid heavy on the enemy. With a perch on a rooftop and a finger on a trigger, he wields the power of life and death. A man runs into the street with a grenade, threatening the American troops below? Crack. Thoomp. A small spray of blood and one life is gone while others are saved.
It’s harsh work, but no one does it better. The real-life Chris Kyle racked up more than 160 confirmed kills and probably hundreds more. He was so lethal that insurgents slapped an $80,000 bounty on his head and dubbed him the Devil of Ramadi. Not that Chris was phased by their threats: He signed up for four tours of duty and seemed, at times, invulnerable. He thrived in those Iraqi deserts, at home in the heat.
But in this movie from Clint Eastwood, it was home that felt dangerous to Chris. It was home that was dangerous.
Much of the story is pulled from Chris Kyle’s autobiography, and it does little to dispel the fact that many would consider Kyle an unalloyed American hero.
Chris’ father tells him that there are three types of people in the world: sheep, wolves and sheepdogs. And when Chris beats up a bully who was hitting his little brother Jeff, Dad, instead of punishing him for fighting, simply says, “Well, then you know who you are. You know your purpose.”
This is not to condone fighting at school, of course. But it does illustrate why Chris sees himself as that sheepdog, protecting American military personnel from the wolves all around them. He’s not conflicted about his job, nor does he wring his hands over his marks. He has a clarity of purpose unusual in this navel-gazing age of ours: His job is to fight evil, he believes, and that evil is embodied in the terrorists he guns down. It’s a shame these people picked up weapons to attack, he thinks. But now that they have, he has no question about what his role needs to be.
Chris’ clarity of purpose is so crystal clear, in fact, that it makes it hard for him to go home. He feels that if he’s not in Iraq, Americans are dying needlessly. The sheepdog in him won’t stop patrolling, even as his wife, Taya, tells him that she and his kids could sure use some protection and companionship too.
Eventually a counselor tells him that his sheepdog days aren’t necessarily over just because his tours of duty are. He encourages Chris to help other soldiers and sailors, now Stateside and struggling to adapt. Chris throws himself into this new arena, serving as a mentor to many. And he becomes a laudable husband and father to boot.
Chris seems to be a sincere (if less-than-reflective) Christian. He says he believes in “God, country, family” and insists that he could “stand before the Creator and answer for every shot I took.” A huge Crusader cross is tattooed on one of his arms, and he carries a Bible with him wherever he goes.
But Chris stole that Bible from a church pew as a kid, and one of his fellow Navy SEALs tells Chris that he’s never seen him actually open the book up. (This SEAL wants to be a pastor when he returns from the war and struggles with the morality of what they’re doing in Iraq.)
The insurgents have their own faith, of course, though we don’t see much of it. Chris and his cadre confront and question an Islamic cleric. A pastor recites verses from Acts that relate to spiritual judgment.
Before he joined the Navy, Chris was a rodeo cowboy, and he hopes that his latest buckle (a traditional trophy given to cowboys for winning an event) will get him “laid” by his girlfriend. But then he and his brother discover Chris’ girlfriend with another man (both hurriedly dressing).
Chris later picks up his eventual wife at a bar (after she rejects another guy who hits on her). Though she tries to keep Chris at arm’s length for a time, the two eventually kiss, then sleep together. We see them in bed together nude under the sheets, her in bra and panties, her wrapping her legs around him as he carries her, and her running her foot up his leg to his crotch. Several times they coyly flirt around with sexual topics. Married, when Chris comes home from a tour, he and his wife awkwardly begin making moves again to become intimate—a tricky thing, considering how long they’ve been apart.
Someone removes his ring when trying to score at a bar. There are one-off jokes about incest, masturbation, oral sex, anatomical sizes and talking dirty on the phone. The f-word is used several times in a sexual context, among other sexually provocative and descriptive words.
Chris and his handpicked team try to take down a radical nicknamed the Butcher, and his moniker seems well picked. In perhaps the movie’s most horrific scene, the Butcher drags a little boy out into the street—the grandson of a cleric who gave Chris’ team information—takes an electric drill and drives the bit into the boy’s leg. Then, when the cleric makes a move to rescue the lad, he’s gunned down as the Butcher drills through the boy’s head, leaving him dead in a pool of blood as he shouts out warnings to onlookers. (The scene is not filmed from a close-up point of view, but the suggestion it gives us is terrifying.) Later, when Chris closes in on the Butcher, we go into his lair … a supposed restaurant where body parts, including decapitated heads, are stored. One dead, bloody body—presumably someone tortured to death—hangs from chains.
In contrast, Chris’ own work is practically sterile. Most of his kills—and we see many of them—are accomplished quickly and “cleanly,” accompanied by a small splash of blood. But his work has its own share of horrors. His first mark is a boy about 12 years old. The kid’s mother gave him a grenade to throw at an advancing squadron of American military; Chris shoots him once. And when the mom picks up the grenade to hurl it herself, Chris puts her down, too. (He nearly has to shoot another child who picks up a weapon and aims it at an American column. The SEAL holds his fire long enough for the boy to finally drop the weapon and run away.)
Other kills are shown, of course, along with casualties on the American side of things. One SEAL is shot in the head, the bullet mangling much of his face. Another, suffering a similar wound, bleeds out. Protracted firefights and grenade attacks produce high body counts. We see a vehicle drive over a dead body.
Back home, when a dog wrestles with a little boy at a backyard party, Chris thinks it’s attacking: He runs over, pins the dog with his hand and pulls off his belt, preparing to beat the beast. Chris shoots a rattlesnake during training. He puts someone in a headlock. People are pushed around and to the ground. Kids on a playground beat each other bloody. At a Stateside bar, one macho military guy becomes an impromptu dart board: With a bull’s-eye on his back, he stands still as his friends throw darts into him. (Several hang in the skin on his back.)
About 100 f-words, nearly 40 s-words and scads of other swear words, including “a–,” “b–ch,” “h—,” “p—” and “d–k.” God’s name is misused a dozen times, more often than not combined with “d–n.” Jesus’ name is abused two or three times.
Chris and his brother drink lots of beer. Chris and his SEAL friends pour and drink champagne after Chris’ wedding, and many quaff beer as well. When Chris first meets Taya at a bar, she’s already had a drink or two, and he engages her in a contest involving shots. By the time she staggers out, she’s so drunk she throws up. (Chris holds up her hair so it doesn’t get covered in vomit.)
Special Forces vehicles and gear are sometimes emblazoned with the skull of the Punisher, a gun-brandishing Marvel superhero.
You don’t become a world-class sniper without a laser-like focus on what’s in front of you. American Sniper suggests that Chris retained that sniper’s clarity and fixation throughout his life. While his comrades may ruminate on the war’s purpose and morality, Chris simply concentrates on his job. As others wonder about what might’ve been, Chris focuses on what is.
Early in her relationship with Chris, Taya laments the many missteps she’s taken.
“I thought I was meant for something more,” she confesses.
Chris suggests there’s no point in looking back. “Those wrong picks put you here,” he tells her. “Made you who you are.”
If we were able to see American Sniper through Chris’ own laser-sight eyes, we’d be able to easily reduce it down to its many positives: its heroism and sacrifice, and strong sense of duty and family.
But movies aren’t meant to be viewed through a scope. They require you to look at everything around you. So the story we’re given here is more complex than Chris would deem it, and more problematic. It’s filled with extreme, sometimes sadistic violence—presented to illustrate a point, but there nevertheless. And it’s crammed with colorful language (read: lots of f-words) that accurately reflects the way these men surely talked, but there nevertheless.
American Sniper is about more than one man’s heroism in the midst of war. It’s about the high cost of that war on those involved—and it asks (demands) that we too feel and see (if not quite experience) that cost.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.