American Sniper Beat Sheet
Written by: Jason Hall; based on the book by Chris Kyle with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Genre: Institutionalized: Group, Choice, Sacrifice
Sub-Genre: Military Institution
Opening Image: Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) watches over a US military convoy through his sniper rifle. He reports any activity that could be a threat to the ground troops. He sees a man on a cellphone watching the troops and reports it in. He’s given the “green light” to shoot if he thinks the man is a threat. Kyle is unsure and the man disappears before Chris can make a decision.
Chris is relieved he didn’t have to take the shot, but his relief is short-lived as a woman and her young son come out of their home and walk toward the convoy. He reports it in once again. He sees the woman hand over a Russian grenade to her son. Chris asks for confirmation from the ground but no one can do so. The boy runs towards the convoy. Chris is given the “green light” to shoot the boy. It’s his call. Chris is unsure what to decide as his Marine guard warns him he’ll be sent to prison if he’s wrong. As Chris places his finger on the trigger…
Set-Up: A younger Chris fires his rifle and takes down a deer. He’s on a hunting trip with his Dad. It’s his first kill and Dad proudly tells Chris he has a gift. “You’re gonna make a fine hunter someday.” He sure will. But he also admonishes Chris to never leave his rifle in the dirt – a foreshadowing of how Chris will identify himself throughout this movie.
Theme Stated: After pummeling a bully who was beating up his younger brother Jeff, Chris is told by his Dad that there are three kinds of people in this world: the sheep, those who don’t know how to protect themselves; the wolf, those who use violence to prey on the weak; and the sheepdog, those who are gifted with the power of aggression and the overpowering need to protect the flock.
After confirming with Jeff that Chris was only protecting his brother, Dad tells Chris, “Well, then you know who you are. You know your purpose.” And this will be Chris’ dilemma throughout: the struggle to live up to and, ultimately, find his true purpose in life.
Catalyst: A much older Chris watches horrified on TV as terrorists attack the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. Chris reacts angrily – helpless at the thought he is unable to protect his country.
Debate: Driven by the events of 9/11, Chris visits a Navy Recruiting Office. When warned that the Navy SEALS isn’t for most men, Chris is uncertain before he replies… he isn’t most men. Does Chris really have what it takes to make it through to the end? Will his overpowering desire to protect be enough to save others in the battlefield and, more importantly, save himself?
B Story: Chris meets Taya (Sienna Miller). She will be his guide and provide Chris – and the audience – a break from the A Story that is the war. As his wife and the mother of his children, she’s the one who will remind him of the theme and help him find his purpose again in the end.
Break into Two: Chris arrives in Iraq and we’re back to the Opening Image. The tension and suspense from the Opening Image has kept us watching and waiting to see if Chris will take that shot at the boy. Chris has no choice and pulls the trigger, killing the boy instantly. The boy’s mother wails and rushes to the boy’s body. But when she reaches the body, she grabs the grenade and turns to the convoy. Chris fires once again, striking her down as she hurls the grenade short of the convoy, leaving the Marines unharmed.
Chris returns to the barracks that night clearly still upset for killing the boy. Though it may not have been how he envisioned his first kill, fellow SEAL Biggles (Jake McDorman) consoles Chris by telling him he did his job, end of story. In short, that’s what he was meant to do, his purpose – and his active goal for the story.
Fun & Games: As the war rages on, Chris’ kill count grows – along with his reputation. Marines recognize him and Chris earns the moniker “Legend.”
Back stateside, Taya is expecting their first child and tells Chris his brother Jeff is being deployed to Iraq as well. Chris is clearly worried about this development.
As the military makes its top mission to capture the terrorist known as Zarqawi, Al-Queda’s #1 in Iraq, Chris chooses to leave the safety of the rooftops and joins the Marines on foot as they go door-to-door searching for rebels. With Chris leading the way, they find out from a local man, Sheikh Al-Obeidi, that the best way to Zarqawi is through his enforcer, known as The Butcher.
Al-Obeidi’s information checks out with their DIA Liaison. But Chris’ unit is pinned down by the infamous rebel sniper, Mustafa, as they’re on their way to pick up Al-Obeidi. Unable to get the upper hand, Chris watches helplessly as The Butcher murders Al-Obeidi and his son before running off unopposed. With several dead marines, including their DIA Liaison, Chris’ operation is shut down by their CO as he’s denied permission to pursue The Butcher.
Chris ends his first tour and heads home to Taya. But clearly, Chris “isn’t home” and Taya starts to worry. He’s distant and quiet. Even when their first child is born, Chris is still preoccupied with the war. She implores him to “make it back to us.”
Chris returns for his second tour where he runs into his brother Jeff. But Jeff doesn’t feel the same way as Chris when it comes to the war and only wants to go home. He doesn’t share Chris’ overpowering need to protect his flock. Chris is unsure how to react.
Chris learns there’s a bounty on him as he’s placed in charge of hunting down The Butcher. His team includes fellow long-time serving SEALS and good friends Marc (Luke Grimes) and Biggles. They receive intel on where The Butcher may be hiding. They forcibly take over an apartment and use it to stake out The Butcher’s hiding place. After confirming The Butcher’s presence, the team awaits the right time to storm the hideout. But Chris realizes that the apartment’s owner isn’t as innocent and ignorant of The Butcher as he claims to be.
Midpoint: Using the owner as their way in, Chris and his men storm the hideout. After a fierce shoot-out, Chris pursues The Butcher who tries to escape in a vehicle. Chris chases the vehicle and unloads his assault weapon on it. The vehicle explodes in flames and Chris is happy to report, “The Butcher is down.” It’s a False Victory for Chris because, while he may have fulfilled his mission and done his job (his external goal), he is still far from making his way back emotionally to Taya and their children.
Bad Guys Close In: As Chris and his men pull out to avoid a confrontation with angry villagers, Chris is unaware he has narrowly escaped Mustafa’s cross-sights. Mustafa’s presence raises the stakes for Chris personally in more ways than one.
Back home once again, Chris continues to struggle as a civilian. He’s jumpy and easily agitated. He runs into a Marine, who Chris had saved in one mission but lost a leg while on duty. The Marine is grateful he’s alive and all he lost was a leg. He tells Chris of others who made it back but “aren’t back and can’t seem to get right.” Chris uncomfortably nods his head in agreement, in denial of his own situation.
But Chris isn’t the only one struggling as Taya, after the birth of their second child, tells him she’s making memories on her own because even if he’s around, he’s not. She warns Chris, “If you think the war isn’t changing you, you’re wrong. You can only circle the flame for so long.”
Chris returns to Iraq for a third tour. On a mission following one of The Butcher’s couriers, Chris’ unit comes under fire and Biggles is shot by Mustafa. They rush him back to base and straight to surgery where it doesn’t look good.
With emotions running high and eager for revenge, the SEALS head back out immediately and join the ongoing firefight. But this time, the cost is even greater. Marc is killed in the battle.
After attending Marc’s funeral, a paranoid Chris tells Taya that Marc is to blame for his own death, not the ambush. He blames Marc for giving up on what he was fighting for. Taya has no words to reply.
Chris visits Biggles in the Veteran’s Hospital and tells him he’s heading back to Iraq. Despite Biggles telling Chris he doesn’t have to return, Chris says he’s going after Mustafa to make him pay for what he did to Biggles, his “brother.” Because just like his Dad told him many years ago, he has permission to finish the fight. He knows what he must do. He is, after all, the sheepdog.
Taya pleads with Chris not to return. She tells Chris they’ve sacrificed enough and it’s time for others to make that sacrifice. But Chris can’t live with himself if he let’s others do his job. She needs him back home. She needs him to be human again. When Chris doesn’t reply, she gives him an ultimatum, telling him they may not be waiting for him the next time he comes back.
Fourth Tour. Chris is an overwatch, backing up Marines. He shoots a man who’s about to take out a Marine unit with an RPG. But when the man goes down, a young boy picks up the RPG and aims it at the Marines. It’s a repeat of the opening and Chris wills the boy to drop the RPG before he’s forced to take him down as well. Just as Chris is about to pull the trigger, the boy drops the RPG and runs away.
Back at base, in a Whiff of Death moment, Chris learns that Biggles died while being operated on.
Chris is tasked with protecting army engineers who are being picked off one by one by a sniper. Gauging by the distance of the shots, Chris is sure it’s Mustafa.
Chris and his unit are watching over the engineers, ready to take Mustafa down if he shows up. But they are caught facing the wrong way when Mustafa kills one of the engineers. Chris quickly repositions himself and spots Mustafa. He’s over 2100 yards away. It’s an impossible shot. Chris is warned against taking the shot because it’ll expose their whereabouts to rebels who are circling them. Chris takes the shot anyway, killing Mustafa and getting his revenge for Biggles, finishing the fight once and for all.
All Is Lost: True enough, the rebels hear the shot and quickly surround Chris and his unit with a sandstorm bearing down. It doesn’t look good as Chris and his unit are overwhelmingly outmanned. With ammunition about to run out, Chris calls Taya and tells her he’s ready to come home. Maybe he’s ready to move on and truly come home to his family or maybe just in a body bag. Either way, he’s coming home.
While the sandstorm heightens the situation, it also allows Chris and his unit to pull out. Chris barely manages to escape with his unit, as he drops his rifle in the dirt and it’s slowly buried in the sandstorm – a visual moment telling us a new Chris, for better or worse, will be awaiting us in the Third Act.
Dark Night of the Soul: Chris is back stateside, but he’s not home. He’s in a bar, drinking alone. When Taya calls, he hesitates to answer. She’s surprised to hear he’s back home and questions what he’s doing. Chris tells her he “just needed a minute.” And when he tells her he’s coming home, his voice cracks and he’s on the verge of tears. He may have the left the battlefield, but clearly another battle is going on inside him.
Break into Three: Chris rejoins his family but he’s clearly still struggling to adjust. He’s distant and hears the sounds of war as he stares at the blank screen of a TV. Taya is worried.
Finale: After almost beating their dog when it playfully pounces on a boy in a party, Chris visits a therapist at the VA. Chris admits that he’s haunted with the thought that he’s unable to save more soldiers. He feels he quit on them. But the therapist tells him there are lots of soldiers right in the VA who needs saving. Chris is surprised to hear this (Hightower Surprised even!). He’s never thought of this and the therapist introduces him to group of disabled vets. Soon, Chris is helping disabled vets by taking them to a gun range. Not only does it help them, it also gives Chris a new-found purpose. And it shows as his relationship with Taya and their kids is at its best.
Final Image: As Chris is about to leave for the gun range to help out another vet, Taya tells Chris how proud she is of him that he’s found his way back. Chris heads out and he greets an uneasy young man waiting for him. Taya watches them with a slight look of concern. As she closes the door and the screen fades to black, we learn that Chris was killed that day by that young vet he was hoping to help.