This is our hero, and he seems to have few problems with what he does. He is not a conflicted man who is haunted by the lives he has taken, or the war. He calls the Iraqis savages more than once. He is defending our country, and his brothers in arms, the people he kills are evil, and he seems to regret none of the lives he takes.
Yet for all that, Kyle is mostly seen as a decent man who happens to have a difficult job. He is a good ol' boy, a loving, good man, then boyfriend, then husband, and finally father. So how did he come to this? Well, “American Sniper” flashes back to show his childhood in Texas being raised with a strict moral code by his father, who takes him hunting, to church, and teaches him that there are three types of people: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. Kyle takes it to heart, and when he enters his thirties and finds life as a (literal) cowboy less than meaningful, he decides to become a Navy SEAL after the embassy bombings in Africa in 1998. He soon meets his wife, and life obviously changes after 9/11, after which he is sent to Iraq. He quickly becomes known as “Legend,” and builds a reputation so fearsome that a bounty is placed on his head.
He even runs into his own dark avatar, a sniper known as Mustafa, who has built up quite a reputation as a killer of many U.S. soldiers. It is only when Mustafa is killed that Kyle feels he can return home permanently to his wife and children.
The action scenes are intense, and are some of the most masterful, beautifully directed scenes of war I've seen on film, capturing the chaos and confusion of the urban battlefield, while also allowing the audience to follow events from start to finish. There's a similar light touch to the scenes at home, where Kyle studies traffic, searching for a potential ambush, sits staring at a blank TV, the sounds of war echoing in his ears only, encountering a soldier and barely maintaining eye contact, and discovers his blood pressure isn't high unless he can pretend “he's just had fourteen cups of coffee.” They are all beautifully understated, and the tension is all the more evident for it. He doesn't believe he has a problem. “American Sniper” proves he's wrong.
Bradley Cooper gives a performance worthy of Meryl Streep, one where he doesn't play Kyle as much as channel him. He bulks up, grows a beard, acquires a Texas drawl, and gives his worldview a sincerity that keeps us deeply invested in him. It's a great achievement, since small towns in Hollywood are generally either seen as either hellish hotbeds of intolerance and oppression, or a blissful paradise of perfect American values complete with simple, honest folk.
However, when you have such a fascinating, larger than life character at the center of your film, the people around him tend to get left behind. Kyle's wife, his family, even his little brother who also serves in Iraq, none are able to really come off nearly as real or complete as he does. And while “American Sniper” works beautifully as a meditation on war, having not read the book (that Kyle himself wrote) it was based on, I can't say how it comes off as a study of Kyle's life. The fact that it shows life after his service up until his death but omits his book, and the press tour and the brushes with celebrity that came with it, feels like an omission, and one of the only concessions the film makes in order to try to make Kyle more humble and palatable to audiences. I was left with the feeling that this is the man, or rather the perfect soldier, that we wish was doing our dirty work, not the one who actually was. But it's your call.