American Sniper is easily the most authentic looking and sounding movie that Hollywood has made about American troops at war since Black Hawk Down.
You can tell within minutes of its beginning that the filmmakers cared to get the details right, that their military consultants weren’t the usual Vietnam veterans that the studios often turn to, and that Clint Eastwood and his team actually listened to what their advisers had say.
Troops “stack” correctly outside buildings before they charge in to clear them.
Army, Navy and Marine uniforms are in the correct camouflage pattern for each of the lead character’s deployments (the U.S. Army alone has changed pattern four times since 9/11).
Thanks to careful research by screenwriter Jason Hall, the language is up to date and sounds real: There are no anachronistic references to “FNGs,” “Spec 4s” or “foxholes,” no-one says “embrace the suck” and almost every phrase spoken by the troops on the ground rightly uses the f-word as an adjective or adverb.
Both background details and the course of the plot feel equally authentic. Soldiers chew tobacco. SF guys spend lots of time pumping iron. Elite troops who have been issued with satellite phones for work purposes only, habitually use them to call their families. No one runs off and finds himself alone in an Iraqi city or has no apparent chain of command as in The Hurt Locker.”
And the Baghdad of the movie looks considerably more like the real city than the versions depicted in that movie or Generation Kill.
Moreover, the makers of American Sniper took care to capture some of the (fascinating) technical aspects of real-life sniping (unlike the team behind Jarhead, a lazy, smug film that foolishly and shamelessly borrowed tropes from Vietnam war films like Full Metal Jacket).
The movie gives you at least some sense of the extent to which a sniper’s talent and skills are about considerably more than mere coordination of hand and eye. They are mental and psychological: hence the yoga-style breathing techniques that snipers use to counteract adrenaline spikes and to slow their heartbeats. (Anyone interested in the art and science of sniping should read John Plaster’s classic book on the subject.)
American Sniper is also pretty accurate in its all-too-brief depiction of certain types of Post Traumatic Stress. In particular it gets right that aspect of PTSD that is fed by regret and guilt at not being able to save comrades who were grievously wounded or killed. (Oddly enough it does not try to catch another aspect—one captured brilliantly by The Hurt Locker—namely, the overwhelming sense of anticlimax many soldiers feel on returning to a civilian existence unlikely to provide the intensity, camaraderie, and meaning that they felt while on deployment.)
None of this is to say that American Sniper is perfect as a depiction of real-life Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, as a depiction of the campaigns in which he took part, or as a depiction of the work of Special Forces. For one thing it weirdly shortchanges Kyle’s impressive commitment to helping other veterans with PTSD—Eastwood refers to it with just one brief scene featuring mutilated soldiers on a firing range.
For another, the movie unrealistically gives little sense of the Iraqi military role in the later years of the war and the extent to which U.S. units worked side by side with Iraqi forces. In a strong piece for the Guardian, one American veteran complained that the film makes the usual Hollywood error of depicting special forces troops as quasi-supermen. That seems an unfair charge, though the film does perhaps exaggerate the superiority of SEALs over ordinary Marine infantry, in particular in a sequence that shows Kyle teaching Marines the basics of clearing buildings.
Oddly enough Jason Hall’s version of Kyle makes the sniper rather more of an unthinking or intolerant patriot than he really was. In real life Kyle apparently did not blame his fellow-sniper Mark Lee’s death on the latter’s disillusionment with the war as expressed in a letter read out at his funeral.