One scene in “American Sniper” wraps up who Chris Kyle truly is. Set atop a rooftop in Iraq, among a group of other snipers protecting a convoy, Chris Kyle spies a chance to kill a rival sniper. This rival sniper, a former Olympic shooting champion from Syria, has been picking off American soldiers from an incredible distance for some time now.
The rival sniper is about 1000 yards away and Chris can just barely make out his presence from a brief flash of light. The shot is nearly impossible but what makes the situation even more dangerous and compelling is that Kyle cannot make the shot without tipping off nearby insurgents to the presence of American soldiers on the rooftop.
Here is where Chris Kyle is truly revealed: will he take the shot and compromise his own safety and that of his fellow snipers for the chance to kill his ultimate rival? All at once we come to know Chris Kyle as competitive, dangerous, loyal to a fault, vengeful, protective, arrogant and devoted to a very particular cause: protecting the men on the ground.
Kyle takes the shot and remarkably, though 1000 meters away, he does take out his target. The shot then alerts the insurgents who quickly converge on the building. In this moment a new Chris Kyle is born, a vulnerable, frightened and remorseful man who in the midst of the coming chaos calls his wife to declare that he’s ready to come home. Bear in mind, in this moment, there is no guarantee that he will leave this rooftop.
Bradley Cooper infuses this scene with gut wrenching authenticity. Chris Kyle’s time as a soldier ends in this moment and the grief, relief, fear and catharsis arrive in waves. Director Clint Eastwood amps the scene with powerful, confident angles, quick cuts between Kyle, his wife back in Texas, an approaching sandstorm and the blur of faceless enemies rushing into the building.
The tension of this scene exhausting in the best possible way as we have been on a rollercoaster of emotion already and the scene plays like the last major climb and climactic drop. Many of us will never know the exhilarating fear brought about by actual life or death combat and this scene is likely as close as we will ever get.
Many critics have claimed that “American Sniper” is a jingoistic celebration of a warmonger. This dismissal of the film ignores the many conflicting emotions at play in the rooftop scenes. In the space of several minutes Chris Kyle is revealed as a man of great determination, skill and patriotism as well as a man who is quite vulnerable, dangerously competitive and arrogant and carrying enough guilt to have developed a death wish.
It’s not clear if Chris Kyle wants to die, the call to his wife seems like an indication of something to live for, but here he is initiating a situation that very likely will get him killed. That he is willing to die so that others may live is noble but the scene does not portray a noble sacrifice but rather a man in a fit of pique, defying orders with an agenda all his own. To this point, Chris Kyle has been a model soldier and yet he defies orders and likely got men killed in his single minded pursuit of his own goal.
Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper do not cower from the uglier side of Chris Kyle’s life in “American Sniper” and the rooftop sequence is a fine example of their complex and thoughtful take on his life. At every turn of “American Sniper” we in the audience are invited to see to Chris Kyle and make up our own mind whether we find him heroic or not. This is not hagiography, as the rooftop sequence indicates, this is one of the most raw and honest portrayals of the complexity of being a soldier ever put to screen.