In case you enter the theater with a lack of knowledge about the film's content, Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (played pitch-perfect by Bradley Cooper) has more confirmed kills than any sniper in American History. He fought four tours in Iraq before coming home to help veterans adjust to civilian life. He was shot and killed while trying to help a fellow veteran in 2013. These are all things the film expects you to know.
I don't think I can get far into this review without addressing comments made about Eastwood, Kyle, and the film. There seems to be an infectious misunderstanding about this film that has bred unjustified controversy. It has been accused of being a propaganda piece of a right-wing conspiracy that glosses over the horrors of war in favor of gung-ho pro-American simplification. If people making these claims had ever seen Letters from Iwo Jima, directed by Eastwood, they'd know their accusations against him are misplaced. If people making these claims had ever talked to a special forces soldier, they'd know that their accusations against Kyle are equally baseless. The film is told mostly from the perspective of Chris Kyle, whose world outlook is stone simple. There are bad guys and it's the job of the good guys to stop the bad guys. He didn't see anything during his tours that changed his mind about his enemy.
More often than not, when you ask a veteran why they shot a person, they answer, "they were shooting at me." People who have never been in a battle, gone to war, or had a gun pointed at them, too often demand that every story show the moral complexity and emotional weight of shooting someone. This movie clearly shows that there is no room for that type of soul searching in a firefight. From the point of view of a soldier, it's kill or be killed. Kill the evil bastards who are shooting at them. Simple.
This does create a narrative problem for the film because we are following around a guy who is definitely simple. I don't mean that he's stupid. In his book, he described himself as black and white and that is apropos. The first twenty-five minutes of the film are mind-numbing as it shows his journey to becoming a soldier. The film hints that his father whipped machismo and his sense of justice into his sons that stuck with them for the rest of their lives. Of course Chris Kyle doesn't have the same version of right and wrong that others may have. For instance, like some other soldiers I've met, he has the irresistible urge to spin the occasional tall tale. That has ruffled some audience feathers, but this is a movie about him and his moral compass, not ours. Eastwood tried to faithfully capture the simple attitude and confidence of a Navy sniper. Kyle is shown disobeying orders on two occasions because he felt like he wasn't doing the right thing.
Once the realization has taken hold that the film has no interest in exploring the outside world's opinion of right and wrong, the audience can enjoy the straightforward heroics of the film's gunslinger. In no uncertain terms, he's shown battling evil with a rifle. A character in the film referred to only as "The Butcher" was based on a real executioner named Abu Deraa who used a power drill to torture his victims. Kyle and his SEAL team is tasked with eliminating him. It's difficult to conjure a moral objection to assassinating the Butcher. Most of the combat scenes follow a similar trajectory.
Scenes on the homefront are a different story. Kyle remains stiffly black-and-white while his immediate family suffers in the gray area between. Kyle's wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), begs and pleads for him to rejoin his family in America. Kyle wrestles with doing the right thing when two "right things" are in direct conflict. It's his duty as a macho guy to take care of his family. It's also his duty as an accomplished soldier to protect his brothers in arms. The conflict brings out the best in the performances of Miller and Bradley Cooper, who seem to have an understanding of Kyle's stubbornness. When everything is going right in their marriage, they are a seriously boring couple (probably like most couples) and the movie drags.
The movie is well-made and takes on the most common problems faced by soldiers, ignoring ones that movie critics might find more compelling. It does not try to shoehorn moral judgements into the film. Most soldiers are comforted by a sense of duty and without it can feel lost. Their sense of righteousness and justice often interferes with personal relationships. That's what this film is about. If you want an exploration of the moral ambiguity of war, look elsewhere. This film is a black and white tale told from the perspective of a guy who knows how to spin a good yarn. In the end, it's a solid war movie that bucks recent trends and appeals more to veterans than sensitive anti-war audiences.