American Sniper misses the target (Robert Henderson)

Robert Henderson

American Sniper misses the target

Main cast

Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle
Sienna Miller as Taya Renae Kyle
Max Charles as Colton Kyle
Luke Grimes as Marc Lee
Kyle Gallner as Goat-Winston
Sam Jaeger as Captain Martens
Jake McDorman as Ryan “Biggles” Job
Sammy Sheik as Mustafa
Mido Hamada as The Butcher
Director Clint Eastwood

American Sniper

This is a frustrating film. Eastwood as the director guarantees that it is technically well made. It moves at a good pace, taken individually the action scenes in Iraq are dramatic and the subject (the role of the sniper) is interesting in itself and has novelty because it is not often extensively examined in film. And yet, and yet ….American Sniper has an emptiness, the sum of its parts being decidedly less than the parts. The film ends up teetering on the edge of boring.

The large majority of the film is devoted to Kyle’s four tours of Iraq, with much of that screen time devoted to sniping and house-to-house searches. Therein lies the first problem with the film as drama. The action scenes become repetitive because there is not that much difference from watching Kyle shoot one person from the top of a building and him doing the same thing to quite a few people. Similarly, the house to house searching has a sameness about it when the streets look the same and the outcome is always either dead bodies after an exchange of gunfire or the taking of prisoners .

There are attempts to vary the emotional content of the sniping , for example the first people Kyle shoots are a young boy and his mother who are attempting to use a grenade against US soldiers. There are also subplots involving an Iraqi sniper known as Mustapha who is portrayed as having a duel with Kyle (which Kyle wins) and a search to find the al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi which involves track of al-Zarqawi’s second in command who known as the Butcher for his delightful habit of torturing people with an electric drill.

But all this generates a most curious lack of tension because the events are rarely develop into more than snapshots. Nor is there any sense that anything Kyle or his comrades has any real purpose beyond the immediate end of preventing American troops from being harmed. Ironically, what the film unintentionally does is to provide a depressing essay on exactly how futile not only the Iraq war but any war fought by Western Armies in Third or Second world countries is fated to be.

The sniping action scenes are rather strange. Often Kyle is shown shooting from the same position on more than one occasion. This is a no no for a sniper unless he really cannot help it. Understandably snipers are both hated and feared by the other side for the constant threat they offer not only in reality but in their enemy’s mind. Consequently, the enemy will make great efforts to locate and kill snipers and the most likely way of doing that is if a sniper stays in the same position and shoots more than once. Modern sniper rifles come with equipment to dull and distort the direction of sound and suppress the flash of a round being fired but it is not a complete solution to the problem of giving away your position. To remain in the same position and fire other shots after the first round has been fired is just asking to be located and killed. There is also an absurd episode towards the end of the film when Kyle shoots the sniper Mustapha at well over 1,000 yards range and in doing so alerts Iraqi insurgents to Kyle and his fellow soldiers’ whereabouts who immediately attack the building in which Kyle and his comrades are hiding.

Because the film is trying to pack so many action scenes in there is little opportunity for character development even of Kyle who is rushed from one action scene to another with breaks every now and then for a return to the States for leave with his wife. Apart from Cooper the only other character with an extensive part is Sienna Miller as Kyle’s wife Taya. She is adequate in the part but it really does not demand much of her beyond her agonising over how Kyle “isn’t here” even when he is home. The rest of the cast does what it has to do well enough in the very limited and unvaried scenes in which they appear.

There is also a frustrating lack of context for Kyle being in Iraq. Kyle’s motivation is ostensibly a simple unquestioning God-fearing patriotism built upon the Bush Administration’s line that the USA was in Iraq to protect Americans in America. That is reasonable enough for Kyle’s character but there is nothing to balance that mentality, no character to challenge his imple faith.

Finally, then there is the problem of Cooper as Kyle. Cooper strikes me as one of those actors who can only play himself. That is not necessarily a problem as many film stars have shown, but the person must have a quality which makes them interesting such as charm, menace, sexual attraction. For me Cooper lacks any exciting or engaging quality. In American Sniper he is seriously wrongly cast for this requires not only a convincing tough guy but a character with some emotional hinterland. Cooper is unconvincing as a hard man and displays as much psychological subtlety as a brick wall. His limitations are particularly exposed in those parts of the film where Lyle is home on leave. These are designed to variously show Kyle’s detachment from ordinary life and addiction to living in a warzone, but these are very cursory and unconvincing. Ryan Gosling in the role would have made the film much more interesting because he has both psychological depth and is a convincing hard man.

The ending of the film is deeply unsatisfactory from a dramatic point of view. Originally the ending was going to be centred around Kyle’s shooting to death by a disturbed ex-marine Eddie Ray Routh who has just been found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole. But Kyle’s wife asked them to drop the scene and the director substituted a tepid ending showing Kyle leaving with Routh to travel to the shooting range where the killing took place with a very anxious Sienna Miller looking on as if she had a premonition of what was to happen, something which must surely have been a post hoc addition to the real-life story. One can understand the wife’s reluctance to have the murder scene removed but presumably she must have originally given it the thumbs up.

Judged by the box office takings American sniper has been immensely in the USA and criticism of the film’s subject matter has generated violent responses in the mainstream and social media . In particular, there has been ill-judged criticism from the likes of Michael Moore that snipers are cowards because they kill without putting themselves in dange. This is double-dyed nonsense. To begin with snipers are always having to guard against being spotted and shot themselves. In a war such as that in Iraq the risk and fear of being seen and killed is enhanced because it is a war fought in towns and cities where there is no readily recognised enemy who may be anywhere and come in any human form from a young child to trained soldier.

To that rebuttal of the charge of coward can be placed a more general exculpation of snipers. War has never been anything but ugly and unchivalrous. When the crossbow was introduced in mediaeval times it was condemned as illegitimate by the nobility because the armoured knight was vulnerable to its bolts. The weapon also had a range much greater than that of a conventional bow which introduced death meted out from a serious distance. Later the same sorts of complaint were levelled at firearms. Long before modern breech loading artillery was devised muzzle loading guns could send their shot miles. By the late 19th century the machine gun had arrived with the capacity to mow down dozens of men quickly. By the middle of the twentieth century bombers were delivering huge payload from a great height onto civilian populations. Sniping is no more or less cowardly, no more or less brutal than war is generally.

More pertinent perhaps are the criticisms that the Kyle of the film is a sanitised version of what Kyle was, that Kyle was far from being the simple God-fearing patriot of the film. Indeed there are strong reasons that he was both a braggart and a fantasist who made up stories such as claiming to have gone down to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and killed many of the “bad guys” who were looting. Yet in the film he is shown as being intensely embarrassed when an veteran of Iraq who has post a leg stops him in a store and praises him effusively for what has done in Iraq.

Overall the film has a nasty whiff of being a propaganda film, not intentionally but in effect. If you go to see it bear that in mind and treat it a primer for an understanding of the ordinary American’s mind these days.



  1. I do not agree with Mr Henderson.

    American Sniper is a great film – I have seen it several times.

    True it does not give a political account of the rights and wrongs of the Iraq war – but that is not what the film is about.

    As for the specific points that Mr Henderson makes.

    A sniper who is on “over watch” (i.e. in a force protection role) does not normally run about changing position, Mr Henderson has misunderstood what the late Chris Kyle’s job normally was.

    Nor are the house searches boring – they were gripping (although one could argue that is NOT something Chris Kyle should have got involved with, in spite of his success at the role).

    Finally a shot of the sort that ends the film is possible – such shots have been made.

    • Paul Marks: “A sniper who is on “over watch” (i.e. in a force protection role) does not normally run about changing position”

      That strikes me as a first rate way of getting killed. Moreover, in the context of the film Kyle was engaged in a sniper duel with an Iraqi.

      “Finally a shot of the sort that ends the film is possible – such shots have been made.”

      Very rarely, nor did Kyle actually shoot the Iraqi sniper in real life. Moreover, it was potty in the film’s context because it resulted in his position with other soldiers becoming under severe assault.

      Another baffling part of Kyle’s behaviour in the film was when he left his sniping position on his own initiative to join in the house to house searching and suffered no disciplinary action. I would have thought that going from his sniper’s position without orders and leaving the soldiers without sniper protection would have been a court martial offence. (The idea of sniper protection in this situation is that a sniper is put on a high building overlooking the area being searched by troops and shoots anyone who appears to be ready to attack the soldiers).

  2. I should have said “ends the Iraq part of the film”.

    Of course the film actually ends with the death of Chris Kyle (Chris Kyle and Chad Littlefield get into the car with the odd looking man they have been asked to try and help) and his funeral.

    I remember the funeral of Chris Kyle – how the roads were lined for miles.

    I have seen the film three times now, but the final scenes never fail to move me.

    • John Pate’s linked reference is to “Shooter”, an acceptable adaptation of the very fine Stephen Hunter book, _Point of Impact_. I highly recommend the Bob Lee Swagger series of Hunter’s books, as well as his others. The movie almost does the book justice, and Mark Wahlberg is believable in spite of being cast against the novel’s description of the protagonist.

  3. Mr Henderson – someone who is on over watch is in a protected position. They do not jump about like a traditional sniper – for example like the Syrian sniper fighting in Iraq (leaping from building to building and so on). It is more like being a heavily armoured Roman than lightly armoured barbarian.

    However, I agree with you about leaving the over watch position to join in the house clearances (indeed I said as much in my comment above). True Navy discipline is not the same as army discipline – and SEALs are race apart (as are Texans), but leaving an over watch position is wrong (what if you are needed – and you are not there?). A bit of poetic license there (although Chris Kyle did do some house clearance work) – like the bit where the two brothers briefly meet in Iraq (in reality they never did).

    American Sniper is really a character study (of Chris Kyle – the lead actor is astonishingly like him, it is a very good piece of work) – and the study of a culture (Texan culture rather than “American culture”). It is not actually a political film – or, if it is, it is cultural “politics”.

    I doubt that this site contains many people who would be interested in such things – unlike the vast numbers of people who have paid to see the film, or bought the book.

  4. Paul Marks ….”someone who is on over watch is in a protected position. They do not jump about like a traditional sniper – for example like the Syrian sniper fighting in Iraq (leaping from building to building and so on). It is more like being a heavily armoured Roman than lightly armoured barbarian. ”

    All Kyle had to protect him in the film was a single marine who spent most of his time slumped against a wall rather than keeping watch. . Not much good if the sniper position is spotted from repeated shots and someone rams an rpg into the spot where he is or a group of insurgents attack Kyle and his sole marine.. RH

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