American Sniper, Clint Eastwood’s Iraq War film starring Bradley Cooper, has experienced a small measure of controversy and an epic public response. BOTH ARE DESERVED.
The movie has made $318 million (with a production budget of $58.8 million) an extraordinary sum for an R-rated war drama devoid of superheroes. It broke two January box-office set by the Behemoth Avatar. It has surpassed every Clint Eastwood movie’s lifetime gross in a few days. (Unforgiven made $101 million over its entire run.) American Sniper deserves all its success.
I am surprised to be saying this. I expected that I would dislike this film based on many of the descriptions I had read and from the clips I saw in previews, but…
It is the first truly great film made about the war in Iraq. It is not a celebration of war; or a call to action against Muslims. It is a sad film about the bravery of warriors in battles whose purpose is lost in the fog of war.
First the controversies. The film does fictionalize aspects of Kyle’s life, but if you go to a non-documentary films hoping to be instructed in the history of anything then you are going to be misled.
- Kyle’s motivation for his enlistment and commitment is hyped up linking it to 9/11;
- Kyle appears more conflicted and doubtful than he reports in his autobiography,
- Some moments of heroic behavior combine several incidents into one;
- The Iraqi master sniper who Kyle is pitted against is a fiction who represents the evil Kyle saw himself to be fighting;
- The final battle is made out to be riskier than it actually was.
Now, the core reality. He was the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history with 163 confirmed kills made possible by his being a naturally gifted shooter from boyhood, a gift nurtured by dedicated training until his deployment to Iraq, where urban warfare provided the perfect venue for its expression. He was called “The Legend” by his fellow soldiers (initially as a form of gentle mockery but over time adopted as an honorific and as a protective talisman). The enemy called him the “Devil of Ramadi” and put an ever increasing price on his head.
The Film. Eastwood uses that core reality as the platform to tell the story of THE dedicate warrior in Iraq. He uses the Chris Kyle he creates to tell the broader story of the war. Eastwood does not shy away from displaying Kyle’s incredible skills with a rifle. Nor does he shy away presenting the enemy as a real and true enemy- even to the point that the shooting of a child and then his mother makes a horrific sense as it is clear that they intend to kill a number of U.S. soldiers.
But to say that American Sniper is pro-war or even a simply heroic portrait of Chris Kyle is to misinterpret it. At the beginning of the story, we see Kyle as a child in Texas. His father instructs him in a simple code after Chris has stood up to a very large bully at school and thinks he is in trouble. His father tells him that most people are sheep; there are wolves who exist to prey on the sheep; and there are sheep dogs whose mission is to protect the sheep. He tells Kyle that he is raising Sheep Dogs.
In the broadest terms, the story of American Sniper is that of a man given this incredibly crude ethical system, thrust into the morass of the Iraq War, and watching it crumble.
He wants to make war on “the evil” of “the savages” who are NOT all Muslims or all Iraqis but those leading the resistance to the government of Iraq and their U.S. allies. There are a number of positive portrayals of Iraqi allies and the sad story of a family that tries to cooperate with the Americans and is butchered for it.
Very quickly it becomes unclear what the purpose of the wars is. Kyle’s incredible ability at killing never solves anything. Kyle is fighting for his fellow soldiers which is obvious and he says that he is fighting for his family which is less clear. But when he says he is fighting for America what is evident is that has to be very careful not to ask himself or others what that means. He regards doubts by his brother and his fellow soldiers as unseemly, weak and dangerous.
The final firefight takes place in a sandstorm. It is the best battle scene put onscreen since the landing at the Normandy beaches in Saving Private Ryan. The fury of the dust obscures all human faces and actions., a metaphor for the Iraq War, a maelstrom that blinds and from which one can only flee.
American Sniper is not the story of a soldier forced into war full of doubts from the first or of a mad killer whose blood lust drives him in battle or of a mindless drone walking through his paces. The courage of American Sniper is that its main character is a dedicated soldier skilled in his work who believes his cause, however hard to define, is just and who regards his actions in war as unfortunate, at times agonizing, but necessary. He is a good soldier, a good man who loves his wife and children even when he has a hard time relating to them in what has become the “unreal world” of “home.”
Home, it seems, is where the war is…..until he cannot even call that home. He returns to the USA homeless (in the psychological sense) where he has no purpose and stands poised on the edge of madness. At that moment his wife’s intervention, the outreach by the Veteran’s Administration, and Kyle’s response when he sets up a riflery program saves him.
The ultimate irony is that Kyle and another vet are murdered by a third vet on a rifle range. The film leaves us with the haunting image of Kyle telling his son to watch out for his mom and his siblings (to be a sheep dog) and a quick kiss for his wife who now thinks he is safely home.
The closing credits run over actual video of the enormous funeral procession, and memorial service conducted…without any background music.
The theater at which I saw the film was packed and as those credits rolled there wasn’t a sound. There had been very little noise during the movie. Now the silence seemed to represent both respect and confusion. Brave soldiers but bravery for what?
Two-and-a-half million Americans served in Iraq and Afghanistan. 4,491 U.S. military personnel were killed, 32,226 were wounded in battle and 51,139 were injured/diseased in theater but outside of combat.
150,000 to 250,000 Iraqis died. Today the region is shattered by ongoing war which most scholars believe was triggered by the destruction of the Bathist regime in Iraq.
This film does not ignore the large questions related to the war but rather chooses to place them into the context of the experience of a single warrior, one of many.
How often do we reckon with how much they have endured? How often do we reckon with why they had to endure? Almost never. American Sniper demands such a reckoning.