American Sniper has generated more commentary, both scathingly critical and laudatory, than any film in recent memory. The story of “America’s deadliest sniper,” Texas-born and -bred Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (credited with more than 160 “confirmed” kills), himself shot down in 2013 by a disturbed war veteran he was trying to help, has become a social litmus test, part of the identity-driven politics of a polarized, fragmenting country. But both the “Blue State” liberals who hate the movie, and the film’s fervent “Red State” supporters who believe American Sniper is what the “libtards” say it is—a pro-Iraq-war propaganda film—are wrong.
At 84, the film’s director, Clint Eastwood, is focusing on the nature of the man of action he has portrayed so many times on film, both celebrating his prowess and courage and examining with a critical eye the steely determination, lack of reflection, and unalloyed certainty that can be both virtues and flaws in such a man. (Some would say he has covered this ground before, dating to his collaboration with mentor Don Siegel on Dirty Harry in 1971, another film that became a sociopolitical litmus test in the period following the turbulent 1960’s.) Eastwood closely examines that duality in American Sniper. On another level, American Sniper is not so much about the politics of the war as about war’s impact on the soldiers who fight—and the effect it has on their families.
Anyone who has been paying attention to the flurry of criticism knows that the filmmakers took a number of liberties in their characterization of the film’s protagonist and with the material on which the film is based, Kyle’s ghostwritten autobiography. The “Chris Kyle” of the movie and the action of the film are not necessarily reflective of the real man or the events described in his book. How much leeway a filmmaker should have in converting such material into a cinematic “true story” is a discussion for another day. What Eastwood has done is to take that material (and screenwriter Jason Hall’s treatment of that material; Hall and the film’s star, Bradley Cooper, are Eastwood’s collaborators and, in effect, coauthors of the film) as the basis for making the kind of war film he wanted to make, one that would focus on the protagonist embodying all the virtues and flaws of the America that has ironically made this movie a box-office hit, and on the toll that the war exacts on him. In a larger context, the film is all about the old America, “Middle America,” “Red State America,” and its title tells us so: The Kyle of the film is an American sniper.
Those who love this film and those who hate it need to pay closer attention. Neither seems able to grapple with the film’s nuances, and few apparently have followed American Sniper’s narrative closely. There are pivotal sequences and lines of dialogue from this highly structured story of a boy’s formation, his growth to manhood, the war that consumes him, and his eventual struggle to return home both physically and psychologically that both sides have not digested.
What happens if there’s a human being on the other end of that rifle? (Wolves, sheep, and sheep dogs.)
Chris Kyle’s father is the key figure in the sequence that tells us how Chris became the sniper of the title: He teaches the boy to shoot and hunt and, in an important scene, tells young Chris never to leave his rifle on the ground. At the dinner table, following a schoolboy fight, the father tells Chris and his younger brother there are three types of people in the world: wolves, who are predators; sheep, the wolves’ prey; and sheep dogs, who defend the flock. By protecting his younger brother in a school fight, Chris has symbolically picked up the rifle and joined the battle. Years later, following terrorist attacks on American targets, Chris enlists in the Navy and becomes a SEAL, training as a sniper. He meets and courts his future wife, Taya, who asks him whether he could shoot a human being. Cut to the next scene: Kyle misses his target during sniper training, then, seeing a snake, a symbol of the evil he knows exists in the world, picks off the serpent and tells his instructor, “I do better with something that’s breathing.” Kyle has determined that he is fully up to the task of being a “sheep dog.”
It’s not about them, it’s about us. (Welcome home.)
Kyle’s protective instincts (fueled by what his father calls “the gift of aggression”) come into full play in the film’s Iraq sequences, covering several tours of duty. Kyle becomes obsessed with his mission to kill an enemy sniper (“Mustafa”). As a SEAL sniper, he provides cover for Marine patrols and is haunted by the men he is responsible for who have been killed by his enemy counterpart. Kyle’s ties to his brothers in arms gradually supersede the attachment he has to his family at home. His initial impulse to defend his homeland was linked to his sense of a threat to his family, but it is his own feeling of responsibility to and love for his comrades that becomes his chief motivation. Kyle, who has found his place as a warrior, is consumed by the war, becoming distant from his wife and family, returning to the war zone time and again to hunt down and kill Mustafa, who has slain a close friend of his. At home, Kyle watches videos of Mustafa’s kills. His wife pleads with him to “be human again,” and screams that “it’s not about them—it’s about us!” Kyle, she notes, says he is defending his family, but his children do not really know him. He is subsequently met at an Iraqi airstrip by a SEAL commander who tells him, “Welcome home!”
Let’s put the fear of God into these savages. (That letter killed Marc.)
The young Kyle is depicted early on attending church. Later, he carries a pocket-sized New Testament in his combat gear, has a Crusader’s cross tattooed on his arm (contrasted with Mustafa’s Muslim crescent), and, having witnessed horrible acts of torture and murder by his fanatical opponents, calls them “savages.” Kyle will admit no doubts about the war and his part in it. He is determined, certain of the rightness of his cause. Another SEAL tells Kyle, “Let’s put the fear of God into these savages!” Kyle becomes a scourge to the enemy, a wanted man with a price on his head as he assumes a new identity as “Legend,” a storied sniper and feared opponent.
Near the end of the film, a clearly disturbed Kyle, who has shown signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, tells a psychologist he is prepared to answer before his Maker for every shot he took. Kyle seems not to dwell on his actions. But he is, in fact, haunted, not only by the comrades he has lost, but by some of the kills he has made, particularly a boy he must “take out” in the film’s now-famous opening combat sequence. He spurns the accolades of his comrades and tells an admiring veteran that his nom de guerre, “Legend,” is not one he should aspire to. Kyle is fighting an inner battle between his revulsion at killing a woman and a child (who were targeting his “flock”) and his deeply held conviction that he is absolutely right in his actions. The audience is subtly invited to ponder whether Chris is becoming a fanatic himself. Is his inner struggle the inevitable price any decent fighting man must pay?
One of his own comrades, a former seminary student, raises the issue of whether the cause is just, saying he would like to believe in it, though it is clear he no longer does. The comrade, Marc, notes that while Kyle carries a Bible, he seldom opens it. He asks Kyle, “You got some kind of savior complex?” Marc is later killed. He leaves behind a letter that Kyle tells Taya is the real cause of Marc’s death—a letter expressing his doubts. The letter includes a passage, read at Marc’s funeral by his grief-stricken mother, wondering when a cause becomes “a wrongful crusade.” Though never fully articulated, questions about the war are raised by Marc and Kyle’s own Marine brother. Was the war justified? And if not, were the enemies Chris Kyle fought and killed acting in their own way as “sheep dogs”?
You failed to secure the battlefield. (I’m coming home.)
Kyle’s very virtues, his determination to defend his comrades, his fearless pursuit of the enemy, his “gift of aggression” become liabilities and character flaws in a couple of the film’s battlefield sequences. In one scene, Kyle leaves his sniper’s post to join the Marines in house-to-house fighting. An officer admonishes Kyle’s team, telling them they “failed to secure the battlefield” and thus put themselves and the mission at risk. Before the film’s climatic battle scene, fought in a raging sandstorm, Kyle kills Mustafa, avenging his friend’s death with an epic mile-long sniper shot. But by doing so, he draws enemy fire on the position of the American troops. One of his comrades curses “Legend” for his brash behavior.
With Mustafa dead, a fellow SEAL, echoing “Dubya’s” infamous premature claim about the Iraq war, declares to Kyle, “Mission accomplished!” Kyle calls his wife to tell her he is coming home. He subsequently runs through the enveloping dust storm to jump on a truck as his team withdraws. Along the way, he drops his rifle. The long and difficult effort to “come home,” never fully completed, thus begins. Chris returns to Texas, trying to be fully “human” again. Struggling with the psychological scars of war, he has begun to help other veterans adjust and to reintegrate himself with his own family when he is shot down.
By chronicling the struggles of its protagonist, American Sniper tells the story of a larger American tragedy.
“It’s not about them—it’s about us,” could be American Sniper’s tag line—the “us” for this writer being my home state and its people. In American Sniper, Bradley Cooper delivers the performance of a lifetime, acting with his expressive blue-gray eyes, his facial expressions, and his often labored breathing. Cooper embodies a Texas type familiar to me—the accent and body language perfect, the unreflective action, masculine competence, basic decency, heartfelt patriotism, and toughness, too, conveyed convincingly. These qualities make for a strong people when conquering a frontier, but are too easily manipulated in a media-driven age.
As boys, my friends and I looked up to men who in some ways were much like Sniper’s Chris Kyle. We wanted to be like them. The father of American Sniper is much like our fathers, or, at least, how we saw them. Like Chris and his father, they focused on action and the task at hand, were unreflective and reactive by nature. For a long time now, those qualities have been used against such people, drawing them into futile wars that serve the interests of those who have exploited them and their patriotic “sheep dog” virtues.
Back in 2005, a Chronicles reader reacted to an article I’d written (“A Time to Stand,” Views, July 2005) by wondering why Chronicles had not done more to celebrate the heroism of Americans fighting in the “War on Terror.” I think my reply is worth reproducing in part:
After reading Norma Haan’s letter, I was, for a time, at a loss about how to reply. I can hear the voice of many of my own friends and relatives in her words. . . .
As far as America’s service personnel, there is no reason not to celebrate heroism, even in a bad cause. America is in such a state that wartime is one of the few opportunities normal people have to express their patriotism. . . .
The politicians have made all their unnecessary wars . . . acceptable to a large segment of the public by successfully manipulating what is itself a good thing—the normal habit of taking one’s own side in a fight—to accomplish goals that themselves are damaging to the nation . . .
I feel a great deal of personal anguish over the war. A large number of the troops being lost over there are people like you and me—“Middle Americans,” for want of a better term. Middle America is losing young people we desperately need at home, having families and preserving the land we all love in a way that has nothing to do with heroism in the martial sense but with an everyday courage a lot of us, including yours truly, have not celebrated enough. Those are the kind of role models we really need to be promoting at this point in our history.
The country Chris Kyle wanted very much to defend has been under attack by the very forces that drew us into that indefensible war. The real war was, and is, here.
Leave a Reply