Chris Kyle was a highly decorated Navy SEAL who, during his four tours in Iraq, reportedly became the most lethal sniper in U.S. history. That’s the kind of meaty material I would expect to produce a blazing action war film. Something generic, packed with eye rolling bravado, ceaseless explosions, gruesome violence. Chris might be played by a former pro wrestler, he’d show little emotion, boast about his kills, crack unfunny one-liners. Instead, director Clint Eastwood has created a film of emotional depth and impressive restraint. A film as concerned with in-county battle as the horrors those battles leave behind. American Sniper is one of the finest films made yet about the War in Iraq. It’s a film that, perhaps for personal reasons, I assume I’ll like more than most. Which is fine. By this point, I’ve learned that the films I connect with emotionally aren’t always movies that the masses are drawn to.
Watching American Sniper, I can’t help but think of my step brother, Neal. Neal and I are the same age, and we’re close (my father married his mother almost exactly 10 years ago). He has served as an Army infantryman since the late 2000s, completing two tours in Afghanistan. In a few weeks, he’ll set out on his first tour in Iraq. I’ll speak for myself, but when someone close to you is involved in a war, politics go out the window. Many would disagree, but my point is that my conversations with Neal don’t include the words “Republican” or “Democrat.” Oil is never mentioned, nor is money or political gain. Instead, we talk about safety, about coming home, and soon. We talk about harsh conditions, cold nights and crap food.
We also talk about post-traumatic stress disorder. About transitioning. Neal hasn’t told me the most brutal stories of what he’s experienced in combat. It’s not my place to ask. But I know him well enough to know that he’s seen things that have changed him. The closest we’ve come to talking about his in-country hell was a few years ago, in early 2011. He was home on leave, and after a few drinks we began to vocalize our troubles. I spoke first, talking about how I had recently ended a long and taxing romantic relationship. It was messy and painful, and I was a wreck. He empathized, then spoke briefly of the horrors he had witnessed in combat. I’ll never forget the conversation – we were in a crowded bar in downtown Washington, D.C. Florescent neon lights, house music, attractive women, expensive vodka. Not the most conducive environment for a heart-to-heart, but if someone’s ready to talk, you let them. I’m not sure how you measure pain, but his struggles certainly put mine into perspective. I went home that night and slept by myself on a big bed in an empty house. Neal went home and likely had trouble closing his eyes, afraid of what the silence and dark may bring.
American Sniper has some very interesting things to say about PTSD. Cinematically, what’s most compelling about Chris Kyle’s PTSD is that it is realized through sound. An electric impact wrench in an auto shop reminds him of a deadly power drill, the playful family pooch is reminiscent of a vicious attack dog. Chris never verbalizes his emotional pain (accept when pressed hard by his wife and doctors), and Eastwood wisely chooses not to visually recall how a modern noise reminds Chris of a terrifying event. For example, when Chris hears the wrench, the film does not flash back to the power drill in Iraq, then cut back to Chris hearing the wrench in the present. The film is smart enough to let us infer what is happening in Chris’ mind. Like Chris, we’re forced to remember.
Yes, there have been better films made about PTSD. No film tops The Deer Hunter for its fearless and devastating portrayal of coming home. And concerning the current conflicts in the Middle East, many superb documentaries have focused on soldiers with PTSD. Wartorn, an HBO doc produced by James Gandolfini, and the Oscar-nominated Hell and Back Again, are two fine examples. But American Sniper is the best modern narrative film I’ve seen on the subject.
And I say this with the understanding that American Sniper is not a film fully concerned with post-traumatic stress disorder. The film spends on equal amount of time in-county as it does at home. The battle scenes are visceral and engaging. But the quiet moments at home are where American Sniper truly succeeds. Cooper is so adept at conveying nervous tension, he’s virtually unrecognizable behind Chris’ agony. There’s an unpredictability to his blank stare that is truly haunting. Watching Chris at home – the kids running around, the wife getting him beers, the neighbors over for a barbeque – I was so fearful of what he might do. It’s a beautifully nuanced performance of such profound regret.
Another reason the film excels when it is stateside is Sienna Miller, who delivers a quietly astounding performance as Chris’ loyal wife, Taya. Women are often ignored in war films. It’s only when such films choose to convey the horrors of coming home that we get to meet the woman behind the man. And, once home, American Sniper is just as interested in Taya’s emotional well-being as Chris’. With her long brown hair, Americana accent, and tear-stained cheeks, Miller proves to be the emotional anchor of the film. I so identified with her inner torment; with her longing for her husband to not only return, but stay. There’s a scene midway through American Sniper that epitomizes why Miller has delivered one of the finest performances of 2014. Chris has just finished his first tour of duty, and a very pregnant Taya waits on an anonymous runway for her man to return. She sees Chris, they embrace and say hello. When they turn to walk away, Miller lets out a nervous sigh of relief while slightly raising her eyebrows, as if to say, “Okay, fuck, that’s over. He’s here.”
That’s over. He’s here. For now. “You can only circle the flames so long,” Taya tells Chris at one point. If war is a drug, then the only thing Chris Kyle wants to do is return to battle. In combat, your enemy is clear. They may be unseen, but you know they’re there. Who is Chris left to fight at home? Where does he hide his pain? Maybe he doesn’t even dare to close his eyes at night. Perhaps he’s afraid of what the silence and dark may bring. A