The greatest crime of the twenty-first century so far has come to the big screen, and it’s a hit. American Sniper scored “the top opening of all time for a non-tentpole”, a record that previously belonged to The Passion of the Christ. (A white man beset by hostile Semites: box office gold.) Mel Gibson’s Jesus picture was a piece of medieval incitement; American Sniper is more commercial product than propaganda film, hedging its bets in order not to alienate any potential audience. There’s a generic antiwar undercurrent, but no understanding of the myriad ways in which this specific act of aggression was so monstrous. The conflicting signals were probably part of a strategy to drum up business through controversy, but the movie deserves to be talked about: how a culture remembers its crimes is always of interest. We seem willing to regret the Iraq War, provided that we never have to face it; American Sniper abides by this profitable bargain.
The film is a highly fictionalized version of Chris Kyle’s memoir, the veracity of which is itself questionable: Kyle liked to tell tales of his stateside exploits, too — much easier to fact-check than his war stories — and these have not withstood scrutiny. Stanley Fish once argued that “Autobiographers cannot lie because anything they say, however mendacious, is the truth about themselves, whether they know it or not,” and in a sense of course he’s right. American Sniper the book, which may be close to worthless as historical testimony, is vivid and persuasive as a self-portrait of a dangerous narcissist.
Kyle’s wife, Taya, had his number the moment they met: “You’re arrogant, self-centered, and glory-seeking,” she told him, giving her impression of SEALs in general but nailing her husband’s character in particular. “You lie and think you can do whatever you want.” Kyle, blessed with the superficial charm of the conscienceless, knew exactly how to respond: “He didn’t smirk or get clever or even act offended,” Taya recalls. “He seemed truly…puzzled. ‘Why would you say that?’ he asked, very innocently and genuine… ‘I would lay down my life for my country. How is that self-centered?’”
The movie offers an answer, portraying Chris as addicted to the drug of war. Between tours he seems to suffer not from PTSD so much as combat withdrawal; even as his fellow users start to die, he keeps going back, defying Taya’s pleas for him to stay with his family. “You don’t know when to quit,” she tells him, finally asking, intervention-style, “Do you want to die?” “I do it for you,” he says, but Taya — the film’s emotional and moral authority, far more intelligent and well-adjusted than her husband — rejects this as “fucking bullshit.” (Sienna Miller is somehow excellent in a role that provides no life for her character outside marriage to the hero.) When he rants about the “savages” of Iraq, she informs him, “It’s not about them, it’s about us,” encapsulating the Hollywood ethos: stories are about intimate relationships between “relatable” people, not history or politics or anything larger — even if the lure of patriotism can be used to sell tickets. Chris returns for a fourth tour, only to experience redemption when he breaks down in the middle of a battle and proclaims himself “ready to come home.”
It’s schmaltzy and unsubtle, but it’s not exactly a recruiting poster. In its interpersonal dynamics, American Sniper conveys more sympathy for the skepticism of its “sensitive” characters than for the hero’s worldview. When Chris’s buddy Marc Lee, the repressed conscience of their unit, likens war to grasping an electric fence — “It puts lightning in your bones and makes it hard to hold onto anything else” — even this “dangerous game” truism is lost on “The Legend”: “You wanna invite them to come fight in San Diego?” Chris retorts. “Or Seattle? We’re protecting more than this dirt.” Marc’s dubious expression, and the hint of first doubts on Chris’s own face, makes it plain that the faultiness of this logic is not lost on Eastwood. But too much thinking would spoil the stark confrontation the director evidently was determined to stage. When it comes to warfighting, American Sniper unspools like a Western; almost all the Iraqis onscreen conform to Quentin Tarantino’s appraisal of Native Americans in the films of John Ford: “faceless Indians he killed like zombies.”
It’s hard to know, when watching Eastwood’s Iraq War, where doltish film conventions end and rotten politics begins. (Bushism was an awful lot like an idiotic blockbuster in the first place.) The bits of military exposition are outrageously at odds with the facts, but they also sound so hokey it seems almost stupid to object by citing reality. As Chris and his comrades trundle towards Fallujah, a commander explains that “AQI have put a price on your heads and extremists from around the globe are flooding the borders to collect on it.” No mention of homegrown resistance, which in Fallujah especially was strong. “The city was evacuated,” the officer continues. “Any military-aged male still here, is here to kill you.” Not quite: though Fallujah was subjected to “relentless aerial and artillery bombardment” intended to soften up insurgent positions and drive out the civilian population, “hundreds of men trying to flee the assault” were “turned back by U.S. troops following orders to allow only women, children, and the elderly to leave,” the AP reported. Preventing “all males aged 15 to 55” from escaping Fallujah ensured that the assault would violate the principle of distinction, automatically making it a massive war crime — even before we take into account such illegal tactics as cutting off the water [PDF], storming the hospital, and firing banned incendiary weapons. All of which is missing from American Sniper.
You can argue, fairly enough, that the film presents one soldier’s narrow perspective, and isn’t obliged to present a sweeping picture of the war. The problem is, there’s reason to suspect that snipers were directly implicated in war crimes during battles in which Kyle participated — and not in the sense of “isolated incidents.” The website Current Events Inquiry collected several eyetwiness accounts which agree that U.S. sharpshooters terrorized the residents of besieged cities, firing on civilians, ambulances, and aid workers. Chris Kyle was, of course, “the most lethal sniper in U.S. history”; given the attitudes he openly expresses in his book — extreme racism, total callousness and a lack of reflection or remorse — it would be naive, even for those who don’t recognize the right of Iraqis to resist foreign occupation, not to wonder about the human beings whose snuffed-out lives constitute Kyle’s 160 “confirmed kills” (out of 225 “probable” ones): who were they, what were they doing when they died? Matt Taibbi very perceptively highlights an especially alarming passage in the book: “when one [sniper] in particular began to threaten his ‘legendary’ number, Kyle ‘all of a sudden’ seemed to have ‘every stinkin’ bad guy in the city running across my scope.’ As in, wink wink, my luck suddenly changed when the sniper-race got close, get it? It’s super-ugly stuff.”
But confronting any of these questions would have challenged the audience, which has never collectively reckoned with the war’s fundamental criminality. And since American Sniper is a business proposition, there was zero incentive to do that. Of course, the filmmakers probably don’t view the war as criminal: Eastwood seems to subscribe to the “blunder” interpretation, and my sense from consulting a draft of the script online is that he toned down the screenwriter’s blatant jingoism. But either way, no serious attempt was made to square the storyline with reality. What can you say about an Iraq War movie in which a plan is announced to turn the tide by trapping Sunni Al Qaeda fighters behind a wall, in Sadr City — Baghdad’s famous Shia district? It’s a comic book version of the conflict, an enactment of the vulgar “bad guys” concept of the enemy the U.S. faced.
As for ordinary Iraqi civilians, their suffering is nearly invisible in the film, with one exception: a doomed family that Chris shanghais into helping his hunt for an insurgent known as The Butcher, said to be Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s right-hand man. (This subplot, invented for the film, reflects a preference for foreign fighter-type antagonists over serious engagement with the nature of Iraqi resistance; the other villain, an insurgent marksman called Mustafa, is pointedly said to be Syrian, even though the book, which mentions such a figure briefly, identifies him as Iraqi.) The Butcher terrorizes civilians into non-cooperation with the Americans, torturing and maiming. Chris promises one family “we will give you safety” (after breaking down their door and manhandling the father) if they share what they know; that, plus the prospect of a $100,000 reward, convinces the man to talk.
But the enterprising sniper has to get approval for his plan from HQ, and a smarmy DIA agent insists on using contractors to handle the exchange, not SEAL Team 3 like Chris recommends. (This is one of several Marine Todd-like interactions with an authority figure, a motif that matches the contempt Kyle expressed for the “head shed” in his book.) The result is a total botch: before the Americans can get to them, the Iraqi man and his son are brutally killed by The Butcher, in a set piece involving torture with a drill. Mustafa picks off several Americans from a nearby rooftop, and both villains escape to continue motivating the hero.
It’s a fucked-up scene. Torture, we know, has not been the exclusive province of the enemy in the War on Terror, yet here it stands only for the barbarism of Al Qaeda. But it’s noteworthy that the U.S. military is shown to be responsible for the family’s torment, even if an evil insurgent is holding the drill. The father had pleaded to be left alone, but Chris insisted, then failed to live up to his word. His personal responsibility is somewhat clouded by the DIA guy’s fecklessness, but the sequence is still an acknowledgment that Iraqis paid the price for U.S. adventurism — albeit one subtle enough to pass unnoticed by viewers uninclined to see things that way.
Other departures from the source material accentuate the ill-effects of combat on soldiers. The film invents a brief encounter between Chris and his younger brother Jeff, a recently-deployed grunt who is obviously suffering from severe shell shock. “Fuck this place,” Jeff mutters vacantly, a living shade of his former self. Chris seems troubled but says nothing, and Jeff never reappears. After Marc Lee is killed, ambushed during a gratuitous revenge raid, his mother reads his last letter at the funeral: “My question is, when does glory fade away and become a wrongful crusade, or an unjustified means which consumes one completely? I’ve seen war, and I’ve seen death…” Taya wants to know if Marc ever confided these dark thoughts to Chris, who has obviously reached the inflection point described in the letter; can he see that? But Chris blames Marc’s bad attitude for his death. This is plainly bullshit — the unit walked heedlessly into a trap, after Marc announced their intention to take “an eye for an eye” — except why does the death-haunted guy have to die, while the true believer finds deliverance?
In the end, Marc’s sentiments and the zombified Jeff seem like concessions to respectable liberal opinion, which couldn’t support the gung-ho tenor of the “real” Kyle’s story. It cost the filmmakers almost nothing to insert these subtleties, and they’ve paid off handsomely: David Denby of The New Yorker called American Sniper “a devastating war movie and a devastating antiwar movie, a subdued celebration of a warrior’s skill and a sorrowful lament over his alienation and misery.” Something for everyone, then.