An Obligatory Think-Piece on ‘American Sniper’

by Sam Buntz

Apparently, I need to write something about American Sniper. There’s no way around it.   I missed writing a think-piece on Girls back when it was hot, and now I’m left with the pathetic option of weighing in on Girls from the colder, more distant perspective afforded by the passage of time. So, I’m determined to get in on American Sniper while it’s still relatively fresh…

First of all: I actually liked American Sniper. I get why some of the criticisms are being made, but can’t really get behind them—or can’t get behind most of them, anyway. It’s no mystery why someone might find the real-life Chris Kyle to be a little suspect. The dude claimed he “loved” killing people—bad people fighting with Al Qaeda in Iraq, but people for all that. Yet, it’s easy enough to sit around in a cushy yuppie apartment, critiquing a few insensitive or dumb statements made by soldiers who’ve been through absolute hell. The movie’s critics have the right perspective on the fundamentally negative course of the Iraq War, but they lack a proper sense of the people who are responding positively to the film. Contrary to something Howard Dean said on Bill Maher’s show, it’s not just fanatical Tea Party members who are embracing the movie—the soldiers (and their families) came from a vast, cross-section of American society, politically, ethnically, and religiously. And people who’ve known soldiers and lived with them can’t just dismiss them as entirely passive victims of a really dumb policy. They naturally want to see them as heroic—because they were heroic. They were definitely ill-served by Bush and Cheney’s terrible policies—but it’s clearly dishonoring them just to dismiss them as chumps who were fooled, and leave it at that. Clint Eastwood made a genuinely good movie, because it shows us that the American Character, despite being in a state of degradation and chaos, still has plenty of heroic qualities.

In Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi wrote one of the most aggressive critiques of the movie. Although he writes in a style that is consciously punk and profane, he makes some fair points. He somewhat excessively points out how “dumb” the Iraq War was—probably the weakest and most irritating feature of the article, belaboring the point: “Sniper is a movie whose politics are so ludicrous and idiotic that under normal circumstances it would be beneath criticism. The only thing that forces us to take it seriously is the extraordinary fact that an almost exactly similar worldview consumed the walnut-sized mind of the president who got us into the war in question… Well done, Clint! You made a movie about mass-bloodshed in Iraq that critics pronounced not political! That’s as Hollywood as Hollywood gets.” So much for the un-informative, invective-laden part of Taibbi’s piece… But towards the end, he makes some thoughtful remarks: “The thing is, it always looks bad when you criticize a soldier for doing what he’s told. It’s equally dangerous to be seduced by the pathos and drama of the individual soldier’s experience, because most wars are about something much larger than that, too… [W]e’re ready to be entertained by stories about how hard it was for our guys. And it might have been. But that’s not the whole story and never will be… We’ll make movies about the Chris Kyles of the world and argue about whether they were heroes or not. Some were, some weren’t. But in public relations as in war, it’ll be the soldiers taking the bullets, not the suits in the Beltway who blithely sent them into lethal missions they were never supposed to understand.” I’d say that’s fair—but it still acts like it’s wrong to try to understand what a war was like for your own country’s soldiers… which it really isn’t.

As dumb as he thinks American Sniper was, I wish Taibbi bothered to describe in more detail the kind of Iraq War movie he actually would want to see. The reader could be forgiven for thinking that he wouldn’t mind staring at a giant neon sign blinking the words, “Fuck Bush!” for two and a half hours. That show might have the facts on its side—but flat accuracy of opinion and decent film-making are two different things. (Taibbi should check out In the Loop, an excellent satire on the political machinations leading up to the war—a scathing, under-appreciated classic). The Iraq War movie I most want to see is a little different: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a fictional film, a documentary, or a TV special depicting the lives of average Iraqi citizens, or dramatizing their relations with the American soldiers and government in a humane, understanding, and non-sappy way. They’re just background scenery in stories about Americans, or in reports about their most violent coreligionists; they’re usually just a casualty statistic. The ordinary Iraqis’ actual views and ways of life find zero coverage in the media, where they’re typically depicted either as objects of sentimental plight, or as a potentially dangerous pack of unruly natives.

First, when we were prepping to invade, the Iraqi people were a Cause—and, after the invasion took place, they quickly became a Problem, one to be solved either with sympathy or contempt. But they’ve never been depicted in and of themselves, as people—we’ve always insisted on perceiving them through the lens of our own ambitions and concerns. American Sniper is obviously guilty of this—that’s where Taibbi’s critique is dead-on—but it was only ever a movie that aimed to make sense of Americans, trying to examine the things that are still good or are still somehow salvageable about the American Character, despite having been mired in a difficult conflict. Perhaps it is seriously incomplete in that it doesn’t provide any political context, highlighting the gross errors of the American Command. But is it all that wrong to fixate on the American Character, specifically, in a movie about Iraq—especially when it hasn’t been done in a dramatically compelling way with any frequency? No—but it would be (and is) seriously wrong to only make movies and news reports like that. The problem is balancing our self-awareness with a greater (a much greater) consciousness of the Iraqi people—since they clearly suffered more from the results of our invasion than we did.

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One thought on “An Obligatory Think-Piece on ‘American Sniper’

  1. Pardon me for entering your space in the middle of an orgy of reading and thinking about this film, Sam. We got a screener in December, I’ve watched it several times, my opinion has gotten gradually more negative, and it has taken me some time to figure out why I liked the film best on first viewing.

    I think there’s a fatal flaw in the structure of the movie, one I believe misleads a large portion of the audience. At first it comes on really, really strong as an action flick bio. It’s pretty obvious from the childhood flashback scenes, to the couple seeing the planes hit the towers, to the “we need a montage” training clips that Chris Kyle is in for something horrible and dangerous. And the audience knows peripherally that people came back from Iraq damaged, so we’re primed for that too.

    The dialogue (as written) is indeed dumb, very “on the nose”. I admire Cooper’s ability especially, to deliver lines that bear similarity to comic books and episodes of “Gomer Pyle” in a natural manner. I’m still not sure if this is intended to make Chris Kyle seem noble and uncomplicated, or to foreshadow how his lack of introspection will doom his psyche once he endures the terrible realities of combat.

    Chris, and the audience, then go through four tours worth of battle scenes, beautifully photographed, and American Sniper temporarily turns into a superhero movie. The filmmakers give Kyle a couple of evil supervillians, and he kills one with a miracle shot. Very hyper-real, but also very Hollywood. I think the over-the-top style of this section of the movie is what seduces an audience to think the film is about something larger than a story about how modern combat breaks men.

    Your article seems to accept this misdirect as well, writing as if the movie is supposed to be about the Iraq War or the American Character. I think the movie is just trying to say NOBODY can do this kind of work and come back intact, by showing how it broke down an exceptional individual. Eastwood has covered this thematic territory before, the psychic cost of violence, in previous, better efforts like Unforgiven.

    That’s where the balance problem comes in. We’re almost two hours in by the time Kyle musters out. We don’t really see him become emotionally vulnerable, just twitchy. He hides his feelings from his wife and kids. A shrink (terrific cameo) directs Chris toward other vets with PTSD. We get glimpses of group therapy where no one has a breakthrough, chummy field trips to the rifle range, and we are told “he changed”. Then before you know it, Chris is murdered offscreen. WTF? HOW did he get better? DID he get better? He put a gun in the hands of a “nut” because the guy’s mom asked him to???

    I don’t personally get why anyone ever thinks it’s a good idea for guys with PTSD (or autism or any other mental illness) to go shoot guns as a form of therapy. Perhaps that came across as normal for others, I don’t know. In any case, the more I see the film, the more I see an implied intent to portray a tragic waste of Chris Kyle’s life that was backed away from consciously.

    I wish they had gone lighter on all the awesome combat to make more room for scenes of rehabilitation and recovery. Maybe the writer and Kyle’s widow weren’t up to facing that terrible reality head on – that Chris’ final victory was stolen and thrown away.

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