My youngest daughter and I saw American Sniper over the weekend. The theater was packed as they have been all across the country. It was our second attempt. We arrived at the box office on Valentine’s Day to find it sold out, so we went back Sunday.
A war movie sold out on Valentine’s Day. A romantic bunch, these Tennesseans.
I really did not know what to expect, having barely heard a negative word concerning Clint Eastwood’s biographical narrative of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. If my Facebook and Twitter feeds were any indication it ranks with the best movies of all time. Thankfully, none of my friends were compelled to kill people of Middle Eastern descent as some on Twitter did. And, frankly, I find the back-and-forth over the use of the word “savages” to be incredibly far afield of the movie’s intent.
Having now seen American Sniper here are a few thoughts.
1. As a movie American Sniper is not one of the best of its genre.
I thought Blackhawk Down was a better movie. It was more engaging, with better multiple character development. In Sniper we know too little about anyone other than Chris Kyle and his wife, Tayla. The editing is choppy, and the music (the score) uninspired. And don’t get me started on the “fake baby.” Eastwood’s impatience made for one strange scene.
Bradley Cooper does an admirable job as Kyle, and Sienna Miller (as his wife, Tayla) is excellent. If Cooper wins multiple awards they will be deserved. Most of the supporting cast is solid, save Mr. and Mrs. Kyle in Chris’s childhood scenes. It is not that the acting is bad; most characters simply are not as engaging as similar movies.
Saving Private Ryan was better a better movie, I think. Though I haven’t seen Hurt Locker some feel it’s a better movie as well. If you hear anyone comparing American Sniper to Band of Brothers please take away their movie pass. The two are not in the same league for many reasons.
2. The movie is not about Chris Kyle a war hero, but about Chris Kyle a suffering veteran.
There can be little doubt Chris Kyle was a red-blooded American guy who answered a call to duty. Here’s a man who is explaining his immediate deployment while dancing at his wedding. Kyle’s groomsmen are more excited about going to war than his receiving of his bride. Much in the movie is made about his proficiency as a marksman, and the growing number of confirmed kills he racks-up during his four tours.
It would be a mistake, however, to think the movie is an Audi Murphy, To Hell and Back, hagiography. It clearly is not. Kyle’s post war struggles, his emotional struggles between deployments, his visits to VA psychiatrist, and his own rehabilitation largely found in rehabbing others are the major story. Kyle is a wounded warrior, needing as much recovery in the aftermath as he had training in advance.
3. Eastwood is not showing the glories of “Legend.” He’s questioning war itself.
In the movie the mythos surrounding Chris Kyle grew to the point his fellow soldiers were emboldened by his presence. “The Legend” reassured them on patrols. He hunted the hunters. He provides stability to his brother who is shattered by his own war experience.
It seems Kyle’s mythos in the movie affected more than the other warriors. Many viewers of the movie have been passionate in promoting it as a great war movie. Eastwood calls the idea that American Sniper promotes war and killing a “stupid analysis.”
In spite of the Kyle’s heroic story, Eastwood’s movie subverts the war narrative. He likely knows that 22 veterans a day are committing suicide. Perhaps he knows the Iraq War is producing more PTSD than the Afghanistan theater. Perhaps he knows the VA has found 10-18% of these returning service men and women are experiencing PTSD, and that it does not diminish over time. Kyle’s death, though thankfully not shown, is directly related.
“It is a good thing war is so terrible lest we should grow too fond of it,” said Robert E. Lee. War is not a movie. War is not a chance for endless glory. War is not a venue for detached fandom. And war is not without cost.
The problem with our current state of waging war is that cost is borne almost entirely by service men and women and their families. Very little cost is borne by the citizens of the United States. Malaise, too, is a cost of war.
4. Because of the personal cost, our government should be slow to deploy, and the citizenry should be quick to hold the government accountable.
One particularly heart-stopping scene has Kyle watching a young boy. Having just killed an insurgent with a rocket launcher, Kyle watches in (dare I say “terror”) as a boy of about 9 picks up the unmanned launcher aiming clumsily at an American Humvee. Kyle focuses on the boy while the boy focuses on the Hummer. Without giving away what happens, realize that boy standing in the scope of an American sniper likely was not born when the war started. We invaded his country and he could have died a thousand times living the only life he’s ever known. He could get a bullet in the back for mimicking the something he’s seen since he could walk.
Are we without any blood on our hands? Not even a drop?
“I was a child growing up during World War II. That was supposed to be the one to end all wars. And four years later, I was standing at the draft board being drafted during the Korean conflict, and then after that there was Vietnam, and it goes on and on forever . . .
“I just wonder . . . does this ever stop? And no, it doesn’t. So each time we get in these conflicts, it deserves a lot of thought before we go wading in or wading out. Going in or coming out. It needs a better thought process, I think.”
One need not be an out-and-out pacifist to desire wisdom in sending our men and women into harm’s way. Are we really protecting American interests? Can our soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and reservists endure deployment after deployment after deployment? I was recently told by a former marine that our current service people see much more action on a tour than most did in World War 2. How much combat fatigue is acceptable?
Why do we complain about VA inefficiency, but cheer the circumstances making our soldiers vulnerable? Too many cannot seem to find enough such circumstances.
In the end American Sniper was an honorable attempt to honor a valiant soldier. The final minutes are somber, thoughtful, and meaningful. But, for me to have left the movie feeling more patriotism than a deep sense of remorse would have missed the complexity of what Eastwood did. If anything this piece of art demands that we look beyond the heart of the warrior to consider what we have done to him.