The thing about American Sniper, which I saw recently with my parents, is that it’s a movie that reflects the scope, beliefs and worldview of its protagonist, Chris Kyle. That’s the thing that you have to understand; it’s not a reflection of Eastwood, at least not really, nor is it a reflection of the Iraq War as a whole, or the thoughts and beliefs of those who sent soldiers into that country. It’s a movie about a man, the life he lived and how he viewed things. That’s both a strength and a weakness of this movie, depending on your scope, beliefs and worldview.
The movie loosely and sometimes quickly follows Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper) from a child till after his time in the military; we only get a little bit of his formative years, but we get enough to understand what kind of man he will become. After drifting around as a cowboy with his brother, he enlists in the military and undergoes SEAL training, during which he meets his future wife, Taya (Sienna Miller) at a bar in a very funny and charming scene. After 9/11 he is sent to Iraq, where he will eventually serve four tours of duty and gain a legendary status and reputation amongst his fellow soldiers, and even among his enemies, as an elite sniper. The movie cuts back and forth between his time fighting and his time at home, where he and Taya have children and grow a family together. The wear and tear of constant redeployment picks at his family and himself, as does the general stress of living the life of a soldier. Eventually, after successfully killing his rival of sorts (an enemy sniper who has taken his toll on American soldiers) Kyle returns fully to civilian life and has to deal with the emotional and mental consequences of his military career. The movie ends on the day he is killed by a fellow veteran he was trying to help.
As long as I am able, I’m going to stick with the movie itself and the story it tells. I know that there is a lot of real world commentary and controversy around this movie, and I’ll get to that later, but right now I’m just going to focus on the movie itself. We can try to place it in a larger context later.
This movie is powerful and emotionally wrenching. Before anything else people say about it, it shows the real struggle and burden going to war can put on a family. Kyle and his wife love each other, but after years and years of him being gone, she is willing to at least consider leaving him because of the strain it’s putting on their family. These moments are some of the most powerful moments of the film and, I would hope, weigh heavily on all who see the movie; going to war is a serious decision for a country; one with consequences and effects we don’t often think about or see. In many ways, that was the biggest thing I took from the movie, at least initially.
That emotional resonance exists largely because of two aspects of the film; the acting and the action. Bradley Cooper gives a very unique and interesting performance. I’ve not read Kyle’s autobiography, but the man Cooper portrays is an odd fellow. Kyle is one of the most successful soldiers of the war; he racks up a record number of confirmed kills and shows a sense of ease and comfort on the battlefield that is otherworldly; He loves his wife and family but the battlefield is clearly his natural environment and the movie implies that he would have probably stayed there as long as he physically could if it weren’t for the demands of his family. He shows little or no guilt about killing so many people and only expresses real remorse about the fact that he couldn’t save more soldiers. I don’t think any of that is wrong, but it’s such a different reaction to war than we get, that it really stands out as the movie ends. Also, the Chris Kyle of the movie doesn’t have any self-awareness about seemingly any aspect of himself. Nicknamed “Legend” by his fellow soldiers, the movie shows us how mythical his status in the military is. Marines are convinced that they wont die with him on over watch and yet Kyle seems unaware of this or that he can’t process or understand it. Whenever his reputation or accomplishments are voiced to him, he seems to go blank and it all just moves past him. Does he not get it? Does he not care? Is him simply uncomfortable with himself in that way? The movie never answers that and I’m left wondering. It seems so out of character for a SEAL to be so mild mannered about things. I’ve read books written by Special Forces, even met a few, and they stand out; they really can’t help actually. These are some of the most dangerous and elite men to have ever walked the Earth and they put off a vibe unlike any other. Maybe it’s because Cooper is obviously not a SEAL, or maybe Kyle was really like this, I don’t know, but it really stood out to me throughout the movie, especially in the car mechanics scene, where he is talking to a soldier who’s life he saved. It’s like Kyle is not fully there, which since his is home and not off fighting I guess you could argue, but it is still so odd to me.
Miller, while getting less screen time and in some ways, less to do, still shines. Their love for each other is clear and strong and she conveys many of the hardships that a soldier’s partner would have to endure. The scenes where she is on the phone with him as combat explodes around him are gripping and powerful; the empathy you feel for her is instant and intense. Their interactions, especially at the end of the movie when he is dealing with the emotional fallout of war, are really sweet and resonate with the audience. I’m not really going to go into details, but the rest of the cast is great, even though we really don’t see much of them. His soldier friends, especially the guy who hangs around the longest, are charming, funny, and give a great impression of men who are good at what they do but have maybe been doing it a little bit to long; you get the impression from a couple of them that this is all they have, or at least all they think they have.
The action in this movie is straightforward and gripping. Urban warfare is the worst kind of warfare; it’s chaotic, twisty and sudden. But Eastwood does a good job of laying out the action that is complex but never overly so; I never lose the thread of combat or forget what they are trying to accomplish. In some ways, the movie is showing us nothing we haven’t seen before but that’s forgivable since it’s all so well done. It’s hard to craft a movie that feels so different and original, especially when the movie is based on real events. Cooper and the rest all move and portray fighting in a way that feel authentic, all though who knows how much it is. The sniper scenes are especially powerful and tense; in many ways I can’t imagine a more stressful or taut responsibility. Think about it; you are tasked with finding and eliminating threats to your fellow soldiers that they can’t even see, will never see or even know about until it’s to late. The last action scene, which culminates with a hasty exit in a sandstorm, is especially good.
American Sniper tells a story we have seen many, many times. A soldier goes off to war, they and there family try to bear that responsibility, and eventually, hopefully, the soldier comes home and has to acclimate himself (or herself) to civilian life. But when you add in the uniqueness of Chris Kyle, and the immediacy of the Iraq War, the movie gains an extra level of effectiveness and emotional turmoil that I appreciated.
While it’s important and interesting to talk about art in and of itself, nothing exists in a vacuum and the larger context of this movie has grown so loud, become such a cacophony of disjointed and angry opinions that it’s impossible to ignore. The level of conversation and reaction has been mostly, to me, very disappointing, though not unexpected. Soldiers, war, terrorism and perceived threats to ones country and way of life always seem to bring out the worst in people.
Some people call this movie propaganda for the Iraq War, that it is somehow a tool to reshape how we view that time and event. That can be true, but that reaction to the film is wholly dependent on the views of the moviegoer before the film even starts. I was a teenager when we invaded Iraq so I was not much of anything when it came to opinions about that decision, but I’ve grown to be skeptical and now view it as a huge mistake. This movie didn’t change my mind; in fact it reinforced my opinion. Kyle endures so much for a cause he absolutely believes in, but I don’t fully share that belief and it left me deeply sad and angry that a man could sacrifice so much for a cause that is so deeply flawed. Such sacrifice, such hardship deserves better then what he and all who served in Iraq marched off for. War can be necessary, but the burden and danger it puts on soldiers is so great and literally life threatening, that the least a society can do is be clear headed and honest about when and why it goes to war. I fear that when we invaded Iraq, we were being neither. If, however, you are or were in favor of the invasion, I doubt it would change your mind as well. Kyle is a highly talented soldier who fought in a war you agree with. He probably deserves all the accolades he got right?
Propaganda is often, if not always, full of lies and half-truths. This movie has both, but I don’t think they are of the kind that makes it deserving of the propaganda label. I did a little research and the movie does stray from what happened. There was no singular enemy sniper, at least not how it’s shown in the movie. The bounty on Kyle’s head was not even close to what it was in the movie and many other things are different. This is what happens when movies are made though and I don’t really fault Eastwood and the screenwriter for that. Like I said at the beginning of this piece, this movie reflects Kyle’s worldview and experiences almost completely; there is a lightening fast scene between him and his younger brother where it is clear that his brother has had a really bad, really shattering experience fighting in his own part of the war; I wish we had gotten more of that, but at the same time, that’s not what this movie is about. Maybe it should be, but its just not and I’m not going to punish it or it’s creators for telling a story they wanted to tell instead of one I felt they should have told instead. I have a more complex, shade of grey view of the world than he did but in evaluating the movie, I don’t really think that matters. You know who else has rather different views then Kyle did? Clint Eastwood, who is a lot more antiwar than a lot of people think (go watch his empty chair speech at the GOP convention in 2012; he actually attacks Obama for supporting the invasion of AFGANISTAN, something missed by GOP folk in the room) and yet he still chose to make this movie. None of what this movie gets wrong or changes feels so malevolently dishonest as for me to wipe my hands of the movie.
Chris Kyle, the real Chris Kyle, has also come under fire, mainly for accusations of libel, tall tales and possible outright lying (lets be honest, he lied about things). No matter your opinion of the guy, in this case it doesn’t look good. A jury awarded Jesse Ventura damages. Let me repeat that; a jury found against a dead veteran and in favor of a public figure, a public figure that is as crazy pants as Ventura. That takes some doing, have no doubt. Kyle also has made claims in his book that are conveniently unprovable or have zero evidence to support them. I don’t know why he told tall tales, but he seemed to have had a habit of doing so. And that is wrong, no bones about it. But to me, all that shows is that he was a person, a full flesh and blood person and people are complicated, and they are multifaceted. Does it change what he did? What he stood for? What he believed? Maybe. It certainly colors things for me. But none of that is a bad thing really. People have the right to be imperfect and complicated. You can still admire them if you wish. My heroes are complicated men and women, have no doubt, and yours can be as well.
The Iraq War, officially, is over. It’s moving from current event to history everyday. America and the world is going to have to decide how they feel about it and hopefully what we all can learn from it. Movies like this shape that view; they overtake and meld our preexisting thoughts about the conflict before being overtaken and melded by later thoughts and feelings about Iraq. I think it’s important to view American Sniper in that larger context with clear eyes and reason. If you are willing to do so, go see this movie. If not, if you are blindly against or for what you think this movie is, it’s only going to make your ignorance deeper.
Next Book: Unsure, I have to see what I finish first.
Next Movie: Selma