On American Sniper or How Chris Kyle Put Aside the Cowboy and Became a Man

The late Chris Kyle was a highly decorated veteran, dubbed “The Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History”. However, Kyle’s story has also been polarizing, with seemingly everyone having an opinion on the man’s actions. Nowhere has this debate been more recently visible (or more humorous) than in the Internet’s response to Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper – the film adaptation of Kyle’s 2012 memoir.

Take any Youtube video related to the film, and you are likely to find ardent supporters and critics of the man, in equal numbers. You will see eloquent expressions of adoration, such as this gem from user Simon Von Bill: “At the end of my life I can only hope that I will have been at least a tenth of a man that Chris Kyle was.” Additionally, you will find passionate, clear-eyed rebuttals, like this one from ElTuco84, who clearly knew Kyle better than most: “You’re aware this is a movie, right? The real Chris is not like the movie character.” Finally, you will find rebuttals of the rebuttals. This one in particular – from user and wordsmith Kris Herman – is a great contribution to our cultural conversation about Kyle’s life and career: “your fuckin piece of shit who wishes you were half as bad ass as chris kyle“.

All joking aside, American Sniper is obviously a film highly susceptible to politicization. With its backdrop being the most traumatic U.S. military engagement since Vietnam, it was probably always destined to be received this way. Although far from a watershed moment in the war film genre, American Sniper is commendable for the way that it largely ignores abstract concepts like American patriotism and the particulars behind the Iraq War. It also avoids applying cheap labels to its titular character. Neither jingoistic or moralistic, Eastwood’s film functions more as a spiritual successor to his own 1992 classic Unforgiven, specifically Kyle’s struggle to trade in his cowboy ethos and become a man.

Eastwood opens his film with the action scene memorably witnessed in film’s first trailer. In the smoking ruins of an Iraqi city, Kyle is faced with the harrowing decision of putting down a young boy who is rushing towards American soldiers while carrying a grenade. Right before the trigger is pulled, the director flashes back to the sniper’s boyhood, obviously intending to probe just what circumstances set the man down such a terrifying road.

In these scenes we briefly encounter Chris’s father Wayne, depicted as a fearsome hulk of a man, dutifully committed to faith, family, and using the belt to reinforce his worldview. Like so many men from that generation, Wayne clearly has something raging inside of him; and the threat of violence hangs over the pious life of the Kyle clan.

This flashback is where the major foundations of Chris Kyle’s life philosophy begin to be established. In between father/son hunting trips and diligent mass-going, Wayne extols the virtue of being a “sheepdog,” to Chris and his younger brother. This metaphorical and certainly ham-fisted speech – which honors those who defend the defenseless – percolates throughout the remainder of American Sniper. While it is perhaps an erroneous move to hang a major component of a man’s psyche on a childhood conversation, this flashback does provide a reference point to help one unpack Chris Kyle’s brave albeit self-destructive actions.


Thankfully, Eastwood spends little time with the young Kyle, jumping almost directly to a shot of Bradley Cooper’s Kyle a few years before the outbreak of the Iraq War. In this reintroduction we can see how Kyle’s childhood experiences have come to fruition. Dressed in jeans, a collared shirt and a ten-gallon hat, its clear that the man has styled himself as a modern-day cowboy.

This is also apparent in his lifestyle. He works nights at a rodeo, getting tossed about like a rag doll riding bulls. American Sniper in no way romanticizes this, or the Chris Kyle character at this point of his life. He is a bit of ne’er-do-well, a directionless louse who appears entirely indifferent after coming home from a rodeo with his brother and finding his live-in girlfriend in bed with another man. After Kyle casually punches his girlfriend’s lover in the face and ejects her from his home, we watch him and his brother Jeff sit listlessly on the couch, attempting to convince themselves of their cowboy status, and that they are in fact living the dream.

Things become far more serious once tensions in the Middle East begin to rise, particularly after the 1990s bombings of U.S. Embassies in Southeast Africa. It is here where Kyle’s cowboy aspirations – previously undirected and banal – begin to take on a dark and very tangible reality. After surviving the brutish nature of his Navy SEALs training, Kyle quickly finds himself on the dusty, windswept battlefields of Iraq – free to play out his western honor code with deadly force and precision.

The scenes of Middle Eastern combat delve deeply into the multifaceted nature of the Kyle character. They also draw attention to the even-handed particulars of Eastwood’s direction, especially in regards to the nature of Kyle’s cowboy ethos. The soldier is depicted in the many pitched battles of American Sniper as a man passionately committed to protecting American life. However, Eastwood also does not omit how incredibly corrosive and dangerous this mentality can become. And because of this balanced approach it is difficult to understand the knee-jerk fulminations of many viewers and pundits; clearly they did not watch the film close enough.

One of the first big scenes that illustrates Kyle’s boundless self-abandonment, transpires after his squad is commanded to find Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his second-in-command (known only as “The Butcher”). During this mission he forgoes his sniper post, choosing instead to join the marine grunts doing highly dangerous door-to-door searches. This is a moment which dissenters of the film could point to as shameless lionization. However, Eastwood – along with writer Jason Hall and actor Bradley Cooper – never oversimplify the man’s motivations. Within this protective, seemingly selfless zeal – which is informed by his cowboy background – a deeply selfish drive exists. The soldier’s altruism is not entirely pure. He continually chooses to sacrifice himself because in performing sacrificial acts he nourishes a core aspect of his being.

What Eastwood spectacularly highlights in these early combat sequences is the cost that headstrong and violent behavior intrinsically carries. There is riveting moment where – after stumbling across a man who claims that he can lead the Americans to The Butcher – Kyle must race to stop said Butcher from murdering the man’s son in retaliation. This scene is pure filmmaking bravado, with Kyle racing up to a rooftop in an attempt to get a good shot off at The Butcher. Upon reaching the roof however, Kyle becomes pinned down by the Syrian sniper Mustafa – who functions in the film as Kyle’s double. Everything from the editing, to Cooper’s powerful physicality, to even the sound design, turn this moment into a breathtaking action scene. Superficially, it celebrates a man of action, and watching Cooper’s Kyle one finds it difficult to not stand and let out a war whoop of admiration. Still, looking at the scene this way misses the point, as it was Kyle’s drive which put the child at risk in the first place.

american sniper

Another major component of American Sniper, which dilutes anyone’s black or white characterization of the film, is that while the cinematic Chris Kyle was clearly a passionate man who believed in his cause, he often was governed by the need for vengeance. There is a key event – that occurs shortly after the death of the informant’s son – which imbues Kyle with this unstoppable need. During a scene where Kyle’s unit is on patrol, Navy SEAL Ryan Job is injured when he is shot through the face by Mustafa. This provokes Kyle – in addition to the rest of his team – to immediately press further into enemy territory, and expose themselves to an incredible amount of risk.

Due to this emotionally-charged decision, another of Kyle’s SEAL brothers (Marc Lee – played by actor Luke Grimes) ends up being shot – this time critically. This deepens Kyle’s antipathy for his enemies, while simultaneously compromising his decision-making. For instance, the climax of the film functions as the apogee for Kyle’s quest for vengeance, and as the film’s referendum on the man’s western idealism. In this scene, Kyle – eschewing protocol, and jeopardizing the lives of many of SEAL brethren – chooses to take a risky, nearly-impossible shot at the enemy sniper Mustafa. When the shot is finally taken – following Eastwood’s cross-cutting between the two men in standoff style – other Iraqi insurgents become alerted to the position of Kyle and his men. In the absolute pandemonium that follows, it is unclear if any soldiers actually lose their lives due to Kyle’s completely reckless actions. However, that is not really the point. The men were clearly jeopardized by his need to “finish it,” which was a concept also extolled by his father Wayne during his sheepdog speech.

Running parallel to Kyle’s many acts of heroism and vengeance, is a serviceable look at the ravaging effects of violence, which are shown to spill off the battlefield and into the home lives of soldiers and their families. Despite his obvious vehemence for his profession, it’s clear that Cooper’s Kyle is not emotionally divorced from the act of killing. In many of the film’s sniper scenes, Eastwood chooses to mainly focus on the actor’s face, paying particular attention to Cooper’s pained eyes. Back home, Kyle’s family becomes progressively more and more isolated. Sienna Miller’s Taya Kyle has an initial lifeline to Chris via a military telephone, which allows them to keep their relationship going. However, this soon becomes disrupted due to the demands of the battlefield, with dropped calls being frequent and long stretches of silence the norm.

Kyle’s continually justifies his prolonged involvement with the Iraq War (the man would undergo an astonishing four tours) in a number of ways. First and foremost, all actions are rationalized by the what he claims is the need to protect Americans. Second, after successfully completing his initial tours, and while on leave in the States, he becomes at odds with Taya over his sullen and withdrawn nature. In one scene the couple is lying together in bed. Taya has become incredibly distressed because of Chris’s plans to return to Iraq for yet another tour. She begins to repeatedly ask him why he does it, why he leaves his family again and again to fight in a distant war. In response, Chris begins chirping his pre-programmed answers, stating that he does to protect her, that he must serve his country, and, when asked why someone else can’t go and take his place, he quietly says that he couldn’t “live with” himself.

This is perhaps the most important statement when attempting to understand how Chris Kyle’s commitment to the cowboy ideal has affected him. Basically, his allegiance to myth, and his almost subconscious acceptance of the moniker of “Legend” (given to him by his fellow soldiers), has completely severed him from civilian life. It has erased Chris Kyle the man because he has fully embraced the myth of his existence. Therefore, Kyle is speaking the truth when he says that he couldn’t live with himself – because the cowboy, the soldier, without an arena in which to carry out his code, cannot exist.

Unforgiven American Sniper

This serves as the appropriate place to bring Eastwood’s Unforgiven into the discussion, and examine how that film’s deconstruction of the cowboy ethos stacks up with American Sniper. There are several areas of overlap between Chris Kyle and Unforgiven’s protagonist William Munny (although there are differences as well). Chief among them is the suggestion by both films of how the violent myth of the cowboy negates one’s functionality in everyday life. In American Sniper it is clear that Chris Kyle’s ability to function as a husband and father – in even a base-line capacity – has been crippled by his immersion in the war. He is barely responsive to his family when on leave from the armed forces. Similarly, it is highly questionable whether Munny is fit for life outside of his former role as a fearsome killer. The film’s introduction to Munny certainly insinuates this, with the old warrior being dragged ignominiously through the mud by a hog. Munny’s inability to sustain himself (or his two motherless tots) with his hog-farming mirrors Kyle’s own inability to be present and helpful in the lives of his wife and children. This parallel is obviously not a literal one. But in both cases the two men are incapable of “living with” themselves. They are incapable of building a life not predicated on violence.

The second overlap is that Munny and Kyle experience slow, inexorable descents into greater and greater violence, and continually attempt to justify their actions. Similar to Kyle’s assertions – where he states that he must “kill” in order to “save” – Munny cycles through a number of different justifications for his return to a life of violence. Initially, Munny justifies his return to the cowboy fold by chivalry. For those who haven’t seen the film, the plot revolves around the disfigurement of a prostitute by a wayward cowpoke. This horrific event subsequently triggers a bounty being placed on the cowpoke’s head, which Munny (among others) attempts to collect. The nature of the crime provides Munny with an excuse for his actions, and allows him to minimize the financial reward waiting at the end of his journey. The bounty hunt instead becomes mainly about restoring the lost honor of the assaulted woman.

Later however this facade falls away, which puts Eastwood’s Munny on the defensive regarding his violent past. He is forced to justify to his companions (played by Morgan Freeman and Jaimz Woolvett), the prostitutes who hired him, and pretty much everyone else in the state of Wyoming that he “ain’t like that no more.” However, the story soon also erodes this. While he initially claims that his return to violence is the product of fiscal necessity, it gradually descends into pure, unadulterated vengeance. After his partner Ned (Morgan Freeman) is killed by Big Whiskey’s Sheriff Little Bill (Gene Hackman), the gunslinger brings about hellish retribution, calling on his particular set of skills to end the film’s escalating cycle of violence. He, like Kyle, feels obligated to “finish it.” However, also like Kyle, Munny is directly responsible for exacerbating the violence of his world. And his inability to deny his cowboy ethos only causes further suffering and death.

This process repeats itself in American Sniper, in both a literal and metaphorical way. Kyle initially immerses himself on the battlefield due to what he sees as necessity. However, in order to eventually free himself from his feelings of obligation to the war, and even contemplate returning to the social sphere of humanity, Kyle becomes committed to revenge. This is specifically focused on Mustafa, which plays out in the climax previously discussed above. This movie-long duel with the enemy sniper is a key part of Kyle’s arc in American Sniper. Seeing this conflict through is a fundamental reason for him being able to return home. The film’s opaque treatment of Mustafa – which has provoked criticism – makes sense in this light. For Kyle to return to humanity he must exorcise his warrior self, and his allegiance to the cowboy code. As Kyle’s dark doppelganger, Mustafa serves that purpose. He is a sniper incarnate, personifying the worst attributes of Kyle, with no inner-life, no family, no development, and no dialogue. He is a man who exists purely to kill. In Kyle’s journey from one who wallows in infantile myths, to one who embraces the reality of his violence, his duel with and eventual killing of Mustafa represents a key turning point – where his descent into hell can begin to be reversed. This interpretation helps to explain the moment that follows directly after Kyle’s successful shot, where the soldier inexplicably calls his wife and tells her he’s “ready to come home,” even as a firefight breaks out around him.

Both Unforgiven and American Sniper wrap up quickly following their respective scenes of liberating revenge – with each Eastwood protagonist then able to leave the western lifestyle behind.  A major difference between Munny and Kyle emerges here however, with the meaning and ramifications of each film’s revenge scene contributing to this divergence. The meaning of Unforgiven’s ending is obviously that people can’t change; men cannot deny their nature, and new starts are truly impossible. While American Sniper’s war scenes end with Kyle also achieving vengeance, the finale is lighter, and perhaps even optimistic as far as Eastwood goes.

American Sniper suggests that people can change, but that change is contingent on one seeking help, embracing growth, and recognizing that violence carries a cost. For Kyle, this involves seeking therapy when he returns to the States. He also finds a more functional outlet for his voracious drive to help other soldiers by providing companionship to those suffering from physical and psychological war wounds. Eastwood is too smart however to turn this ending into a morality play. Cooper’s Kyle doesn’t turn into the William Munny we meet at the beginning of Unforgiven for instance. He really doesn’t give any indication that he regrets the shots he took in Iraq.

However, he at least acknowledges that his destructive selfishness – which drove his “selfless” behavior in combat – has to be quelled. Without doing this, Kyle realizes that he will risk losing everything. He recognizes that he can still do good for his fellow soldiers, perhaps not in the same way that he did when playing the role of “Legend,” but in a more subtle yet sustainable fashion. This is also different from Munny, who at the end of Unforgiven doesn’t seem to care if he goes into oblivion; in fact he seems to embrace it, and even initiate it. He seems to have surrendered to the myth of the cowboy, while Kyle appears at the end of Sniper to have finally decided to struggle against it. If Eastwood’s American Sniper celebrates anything about its subject, it is this attempt to find a different way than Unforgiven’s antihero. Unsurprisingly then, the movie appears to find the post-war Kyle the most unequivocally heroic version of the man. Its ending title card corroborates this, outlining simply that Kyle was killed while trying to help another soldier with PTSD (and mentioning nothing about his historic body count).

American Sniper final few sequences are also critical to understanding the way the film confronts the western mentality. This scene transpires after the Kyles have moved to a new Texas town, and the bonds between Chris and his children, not to mention Chris and his wife Taya, have been repaired. One morning, the former SEAL enters the living room of his home, passing by his children, who both appear relaxed and happy. Taya is in the kitchen, looking similarly serene. When Chris enters, she turns to face him, and is amused by the fact that he is wearing a fake cowboy’s belt, complete with a toy six-shooter.

the searchers american sniper

The couple’s actions in this scene are romantic, defined by innuendo and affection. However, the most intriguing element is that Taya’s maternalism towards Chris is also highlighted by Eastwood. This is particularly apparent in the way she touches Chris’s face and affirms his status as a good husband and father. It’s an intriguing moment between the pair, with the power dynamic coming across as both egalitarian and unequal. It’s an scene whose inclusion also feels appropriate. It illustrates how the cowboy character of Chris Kyle has not been fully dissolved. Like Munny, he is still a killer; the myth still lives in him. Yet, due to his decision to return to contemporary America, the cowboy idea emerges in this scene for what it is: childish, a plaything, which has no real place in adult life.

This idea gains further support when Chris tosses aside this toy gun aside to engage with his children. By doing this, Kyle avoids the fate of his cinematic predecessors: feral half-men such as Ethan Edwards (pictured above). He returns further into the fold of humanity, far more so than Munny, whose fate remains uncertain at the end of Unforgiven, and is only alluded to having gone to San Francisco and “prospered in dry goods.” He has reacclimated himself to society, partially disavowed self-destructive myths, and finally, not to mention truthfully, re-entered the family home. Of course, it’s a bittersweet ending at best, as Eastwood is acutely aware of the pervasiveness of the cowboy myth, of how deeply and universally it can be embedded in American society. He also suggests that even though Kyle has found a way to free himself from his cycle of violence, the cowboy world is still out there; it hasn’t gone away. Kyle, in the film’s second to last shot, is shown leaving the family circle, re-entering the cowboy’s world of madness and death, and departing with an addled marine for the shooting range. As the film states, this would be the last time Taya or his children would see him alive, as that marine would soon take his life.

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