Brilliant and Troubling

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Unless you’ve had your head under a rock for the past month, you have heard the story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. Known as the deadliest sniper in American history, he served four tours of duty in Iraq, during which time he was credited with killing over 160 people (some say the actual number is twice that), was shot three times, endured multiple surgeries, and was awarded two Silver Stars, five Bronze Stars, and numerous other honors. After retiring from active duty, Kyle spent the rest of his short life working with disabled veterans to help them overcome their physical and psychological injuries.

American Sniper tells the Chris Kyle story. It has been nominated for six Academy Awards and has entered superhero territory at the box office, raking in over $100 million in its first wide-release weekend, more than the total combined earnings of the other nominees for Best Picture and likely enough to break director Clint Eastwood’s personal box office records. And with good reason: American Sniper is tight, intense, and emotionally disturbing, the way a war movie ought to be. It takes us into the fray with the soldiers, while also keeping us at home with the families who fear for their lives. In one memorable scene, Kyle’s wife Taya (Sienna Miller) listens in anguish to the battle exploding around her husband when his squad is caught in a street fight and he drops his phone without disconnecting it. In that same scene, an Iraqi family friendly to the Americans is caught in a terrifying standoff with a man known as “The Butcher.” The juxtaposition of two families on opposite sides of the globe vying for one man’s protection is emotionally overwhelming. I cried.

When Bradley Cooper bought the movie rights to Chris Kyle’s memoir, he intended to serve as producer with Chris Pratt in the title role. Pratt is the right build and look, and could have been a good choice. But Cooper is brilliant. I have often commented in these reviews on the intensity and clarity of Cooper’s eyes. He can communicate the thoughts, emotions, and complexity of a character without moving a muscle or uttering a word. Those eyes serve him superbly well in this role, in which, as a sniper, he often waits motionless, searching the distance, ready to squeeze the trigger. Through his eyes we see at various times cold determination, impassioned anguish, psychological uncertainty, and bitter defeat. Through those eyes we see a man who, like so many soldiers, returns home safe, but not sound.

When Iraqis see this film, will they want to send their best snipers to our rooftops to pick off our children and mothers and grandfathers?

Several cinematic nuances contribute to the brilliance of the film. At one point, the camera focuses in through the lens of Kyle’s rifle’s sights, magnifying his deadly eye. I was reminded of a scene from Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” when Farquhar, a condemned Confederate saboteur, looks up from the river toward the Union soldier who is trying to shoot him: “The man in the water saw the eye of the man on the bridge gazing into his own through the sights of the rifle.” An impossible feat, of course — just as impossible as Kyle’s ability to see a sniper 2,000 yards away. And yet, he does. In another scene, we see an homage to Frank Sinatra in Von Ryan’s Express as a dust storm swirls relentlessly around the soldiers. These subtle allusions magnify the emotion and intensity of the storytelling.

So what about the controversy swirling around this film? Much of it stems from the fact that Chris Kyle’s kills did not occur randomly in the heat of battle, but with deadly calm and careful aim taken from neighborhood rooftops. Somehow it is considered honorable and acceptable to kill hundreds of enemies on the battlefield with bombs and machine guns, but pick them off one by one — and admit that you love doing it — and you become a sadistic, calculating murderer.

Kyle is portrayed as a red-white-and-blue patriot who fights, as he often says, to protect Americans. But the film is far from jingoistic. It presents a balanced picture of the aftermath of war — honorable soldiers with doubts about America’s mission, other soldiers mangled and maimed from injuries, still others suffering from PTSD; children growing up without their fathers, and wives suffering from loneliness, fear, and anxiety. It even presents the fearful experience of the enemy, with scenes of Americans bursting into homes while screaming vulgarities and waving rifles in the faces of terrified women and children — hardly an image of patriotism or moral rectitude in the free world.

Watching these events, even from the perspective of a highly decorated Navy SEAL, I couldn’t help but sympathize with the Iraqis. Who do we think we are, rolling through their towns with tanks and jeeps, smashing up their roads, blowing up their buildings, and bursting into their homes with guns drawn and trigger-fingers itchy? And when Iraqis (and other Middle Easterners) see this film, how will they feel? Will they want to send their best snipers to our rooftops to pick off our children and mothers and grandfathers?

Through Cooper's eyes we see at various times cold determination, impassioned anguish, psychological uncertainty, and bitter defeat.

Traditionally, wars have been fought on battlefields, away from home and civilians. Soldiers die and resources are used up until, finally, one side surrenders, and the conflict ends. By contrast, this is a war fought not only on the home front, but also in it. Middle East soldiers live at home with their families, and they attack in packs. Kyle observed the worst of those “pack attacks” on September 11, 2001, when 19 warriors turned four passenger jets into weapons, killing 3,000 civilians (and some military personnel) as they were starting their work day. This, he says, was his motivation for enduring the grueling training required to become a SEAL and go to war. America had been attacked. But it’s hard to justify a war that goes on and on, where soldiers continue to die and resources continue to be used up, but no one seems ready to surrender.

Historically there have been four excuses for going to war: 1) to expand one’s borders; 2) to plunder resources; 3) to change a culture and belief system perceived as immoral; and 4) to defend oneself from aggressors. Only the final two are remotely justifiable, but in this war, none of these reasons is being observed. We aren’t enriching ourselves; we aren’t changing anything; and we wouldn’t need to defend ourselves if we weren’t there. And there are only two smart ways to deal with a hornet’s nest: either smash it entirely, or leave it alone. Unless we are willing to do the former, we ought to do the latter. The most dangerous approach is to poke at it but leave it intact.

American Sniper is stirring the conversation, and that’s a good thing. It’s also a brilliantly made film, better in many ways than Saving Private Ryan, and deserves the accolades it is receiving. No matter how you feel about war, this is a film worth seeing and discussing.


Editor's Note: Review of "American Sniper," directed by Clint Eastwood. Warner Brothers, 2014, 137 minutes.



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