American Sniper: Dolby Atmos Blu-ray Review

American Sniper was the Oscar winner for best achievement in sound editing, so I was hopeful for a really immersive Atmos audio mix.
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Whether you stand on the side of this film being a character study of how war changes a man, both home and abroad, and how someone deals with doing the hard things in war, or on the side of glorifying the most lethal sniper in U.S. history, there is no question that American Sniper is a powerful film, and that Bradley Cooper does an utterly amazing job of inhabiting the role, character, and persona of deceased Navy SEAL, Chris Kyle. Cooper’s incredible body transformation to become the massive Kyle, and emotional range during the film is incredible to watch for its own sake.

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My cousin was a SEAL sniper, so I have an affinity toward films showing the SEALs doing their thing, especially when they get the technical details correct. If you are a fan of that genre, I can’t recommend the movie Lone Survivor enough. As far as the way team guys move, talk, and act, I don’t think any other film has as accurately captured the spirit and feeling.

That film is also based on a true-life account, that of SEAL Marcus Luttrell and his team’s compromised mission, Operation Red Wing. As part of this review, I’m going to weave in some real SEAL facts compared to what you see in the film. So, you know, enjoy! For even more Navy SEAL stuff, check out my post, “Learning Jobsite Situational Awareness from the SEALs,” which offers some tips you can apply to your business practices.

American Sniper was the Oscar winner for best achievement in sound editing, so I was hopeful for a really immersive Atmos audio mix. But up front, I’m going to say that while this movie has terrific audio in parts, it is a pretty big disappointment from an Atmos demo standpoint, especially where the overhead/ceiling speakers are concerned.

I have yet to watch an Atmos-encoded film that uses the overhead speakers as sparingly as Sniper, with the speakers dead silent for huge stretches of time, actually, around 99.994 percent of the film. In fact, there are literally only six scenes in the entire film that have any audio going to these channels, and I would say that the entire movie has a combined ceiling audio output of about 40 seconds.

The huge disappointment is that there were so many great moments when the speakers could have been utilized to deliver far better immersion and staging. But, alas, they don’t. Much of the fighting is done from rooftops, and during the many outdoor scenes, there is no wind, no debris, no ambience, no gun reports or bullets whizzing past, no distant helicopters. Sadly, the lengthiest use of the Atmos overhead speakers is the simple piano music that plays during the Blu-ray’s menu, so cue that up for your demo. Even with that, this is a disc packed with some great audio moments, and I’ll highlight them below.

(Spoilers ahead…)


The film opens with a Muslim call to prayer and a massive Abrams battle tank rumbling across the room; the steady rumble and hum of the tank’s massive diesel engines filling the surround channels and nicely establishing the audio space of the urban war zone. As we cut to Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) on the roof looking through his scope at his target, you get a nice swirling of winds and atmospheric audio. The overhead speakers abruptly kick in as Kyle puts his eye to the scope, adding more intensity to the scene. It’s a nice effect that pulls you into the moment of the hyper focus of looking through the scope with Kyle, and the ceiling speakers keep playing until Kyle says, “He stepped off.”

Real SEAL: Generally snipers deploy in pairs, a shooter and a spotter. However, according to Kyle’s book, "Unlike the Marines, in the field we don't work with spotters. The SEAL philosophy is, basically, if you have a fellow warrior with you, he ought to be shooting, not watching." However, it is highly unlikely that the soldier with Kyle wouldn’t have grabbed a pair of binoculars and confirmed what Kyle was seeing regarding the grenade.

During the rodeo sequence, the sounds of the bronco and the crowd cheering shift and move convincingly around the room, changing with the on-screen perspective. After being a cowboy doesn’t work out, Kyle joins up with the SEALs and we get the mandatory BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition, SEAL) training sequence where the instructors weed out the weak from the pack. There is some nice jeering by the instructors that fairly well mimics the real-life taunting handed out at BUD/S, and a lot of flutter kicks while being hosed down on “the grinder.” Near the end of the scene, the class links arms and heads into the surf and a wave crashes convincingly overhead, breaking a 10-minute silence from the ceiling speakers.

Real SEAL: Cooper/Kyle said he's 30 when he enlists, but the book reveals that he reported to the Navy for basic training in February 1999, when he was 24. Kyle originally applied for the Navy SEALs in 1996 but was turned down due to the pins in his arm from the rodeo accident. Then, in the winter of 1997-1998, a Navy recruiter called and said that they wanted him in the SEALs program, pins and all. It was around this time that he happened to stumble upon some military recruiters at a shopping mall. He wanted to chat to the Army recruiter, but he was on a break and ended up chatting to the Navy recruiter.

At 19 minutes, we see Kyle on the SEAL sniper range and you get a terrific sense of the bullets traveling across the room, with a big gunshot, the whiz of the bullet’s flight, and then the clang and dust poof of the strike. While there is no ceiling speaker audio, the sound mix does a terrific job of capturing the atmosphere of the outdoor range.

Real SEAL: You don’t just finish BUD/S and go to sniper school. In fact, you aren’t even fully a SEAL when you finish BUD/S, which is just the first part of SEAL training and lasts for eight weeks. After graduating BUD/S, you move on to Phase II, dive training, for eight weeks underwater. Following successful completion, training shifts to nine weeks of land warfare training in Phase III. This is followed by three weeks of parachute training at Fort Benning, GA. Even after this, you aren’t an official SEAL until passing a six-month probationary period on a SEAL team. A newly minted SEAL wouldn’t be eligible for sniper school, and would serve some time with his team before applying and being accepted to the advanced trying.

While the film shows Kyle just shooting targets at a range, the actual SEAL sniper course is three months of 12-plus-hour days, seven days a week. Training is in three parts, with the first part focusing on technology (digital photography and satellite communications), the second phase shifting scouting, stalking and camouflage, and the final evolution honing mental focus and working with advanced marksmanship methods, advanced ballistics, and hitting stationary and moving targets out to 1,000-plus yards.

At 26 minutes, an unseen jet briefly streaks by overhead, waking up the ceiling speakers momentarily. Then at around the 30-minute mark, Kyle picks off a hostile and the bullet whips overhead and hits high up on the left wall, perfecting matching the on-screen action. Seconds later, a car bomber attacks the Marine squad and is lit-up by gunfire that erupts all around the room.

At 35 minutes, when Kyle is on the phone to his wife, Taya, the audio does a terrific job of establishing and defining the different acoustic spaces between her living room and his rooftop perch.

At 39 minutes, the scene opens with a helicopter from the right side of the room overhead to the front, while guns pop and crumping explosions go of around the room. Sadly, the sound mixer ignores this perfect opportunity to have the helicopter travel through the ceiling speakers. Moments later, as Kyle joins the Marines on the ground, gunfire pops around the room and a helicopter flies convincingly overhead traveling from right to left.

At 1:03, we get one of the best Atmos demos of the film, displaying the terrific object tracking that the new sound format does so well, as a jet streaks overhead, traveling from the left side of the room to the right.

In the gun battle that follows the raid at 1:09, there is a ton of gunfire that pops and bursts around the room, changing accurately in location and intensity based on the screen’s perspective.

At 1:16, Fake Baby makes its debut, but sadly offers little Atmos-worthy crying or cooing. The silence and close space of the nursery is broken by the Humvee’s engine and road noise as we cut back for the start of Kyle’s third tour.

Real SEAL: Chris and Taya Kyle did not have any fake babies.

At 1:24 the SEALs go back out to kick some ass after Biggles gets shot, and there’s a ton of battle carnage as an RPG whisks past, and the Humvee smashes through a car, scattering wreckage and debris around the room. This scene continues with another big gun battle, and even though the insurgents have the high ground, and there are literally shooters ambushing the SEALs from rooftops, we get no ceiling audio. There is a ton of gunfire that fills the room, and the scene ends with Kyle in the cargo hold of a plane with engines droning steadily around the room.

Real SEAL: Ryan “Biggles” Job was blinded in battle when an enemy sniper's bullet struck his rifle, but he survived much longer than he does in the movie. He was discharged from the military, got married, attended college, got a job, climbed Mount Rainier and Mount Hood, etc. and died in 2009 from complications after going back for more facial reconstructive surgery.

Kyle’s fourth tour begins at 1:33, giving us a nice Atmos demo as a trio of helicopter gunships flies from the back of the room, overhead, and up through the front. While short in duration, this is Atmos 7.1.4 doing what it does best. A bit later we see Kyle lying prone out on a roof scoping the city, and we get some great audio perspective changes as the view switches from his vantage to the city.

Real SEAL: In the film, Kyle is shown agonizing over possibly having to shoot and kill the young boy, but as Kyle wrote, "I had a clear view in my scope but I didn't fire. I wasn't going to kill a kid, innocent or not. I'd have to wait until the savage who put him up to it showed himself on the street."

As we come to the film’s climactic sequence, we see Kyle and other soldiers set up observation on the roof, with dust and wind swirling around the room. At 1:45, a lengthy gun battle breaks out, culminating at around 1:50 with the howling winds of a blinding sandstorm, as gunfire pelts and explosions erupt around the room. Only at the very end of the scene, as the camera pulls back from Mustafa’s body, do the ceiling speakers finally kick in, filling the overheads with the swirling desert winds.

Real SEAL: First, there is NO WAY that a SEAL would stop in the middle of a gunfight to call home and say he is ready to come home. SEALs live to fight. This is lame. Also, while there was an enemy sniper referred to in Kyle’s book as “an Olympics marksman who was using his skills against Americans and Iraqi police and soldiers,” it gets only a single, brief mention in the book; the two never even crossed paths, and Kyle certainly didn’t hunt this mythical “Kaiser F’ing Soze” across four tours. Kyle did hit a target—“a straight-up luck shot”—from 2,100 yards; however, it was against an insurgent with an RPG and not an enemy sniper.

As Kyle trains the injured vets to shoot at 1:58, we cut to a nice ambient outdoor scene and get a really terrific “boom” and the rifle’s report echoes throughout the room. At 2:01, when Kyle takes his son hunting, we get some more terrific outdoor open space and ambience showing off the subtle ways Atmos audio rendering can build the viewing space.

The film ends with real footage of Chris Kyle’s funeral procession as music swells.

John Sciacca is principal of Custom Theater and Audio in Myrtle Beach, SC.

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