American Sniper is a powerful antiwar movie. It may also be important, in that it opens the U.S. public’s eyes to the tremendous trauma of the war among US veterans.
At the center of the film is a hollow man, Chris Kyle, played by Bradley Cooper. Kyle got the nickname The Legend because he killed so many supposed terrorists in Iraq, but he suffered great damage over four tours. The movie ends, of course, as Kyle’s life did: he was killed in 2013 by another veteran with PTSD at a shooting range. In the life of the film, Kyle’s murder seems a foregone conclusion. He lost his soul in Iraq.
The movie features Iraq veterans who were maimed by the war, displaying their grotesque injuries. One of them hits a target at a shooting range and says that he feels like he has his balls back. When has it been stated to such a wide audience that roadside bombs cost soldiers their testicles?
I am well aware that the film is despised on the left. Because the Arabs in the film are almost all faceless and called “savages”, because the violence has a video-game quality, because there is nothing about the architects of the war, and because the film may have contributed to a fearful climate for Muslims in the U.S. The last criticism is the most important. And it is only appropriate that the film’s makers try and alter that climate in public statements, because they are responsible to some small degree for every knuckledragging Islamphobe who sees the movie. But I don’t think the other criticisms are valid. This is a movie about an American small town boy who didn’t know better. It is told inside his frame, and that is fitting. Chris Kyle and the enlistees like him are real people mutilated by the Iraq war; this is a fine subject for a dramatic film. America needs to begin an accounting. On our site Eamon Murphy has faulted the film for the fact that it does not confront the U.S. with the human rights toll of its involvement in Iraq. He is certainly right that it doesn’t do so, but I don’t believe the film has such a responsibility. Forcing the U.S. to confront the human rights toll is a crucial political process that we among others have been engaged in. An artistic work doesn’t have to do everything.
Some say the film glorifies the sniper, that you cheer when he makes his kills. A friend said it was a great action movie. All I can say is, I didn’t feel that way. What Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper, a producer of the film, did for me was strip away all the glory of the glorious warrior. They did so by creating two hours of the grimmest cinema I have ever sat through. I cannot recommend the movie as a movie; there are few surprises in the story and absolutely no laughs, the scenery is soon claustrophobic. There is not one moment I would describe as entertaining. The segments back in Texas with Sienna Miller as the suffering wife on the phone to Chris Kyle or waiting for him to come back from his latest tour are tortuous. Miller does a superb job playing the tormented Taya Kyle. I don’t think there has ever been a tentpole film that so clinically describes the mental suffering of soldiers and their families. American Sniper makes Private Ryan look upbeat.
I saw American Sniper with a World War 2 veteran and when we came out of the theater he was raging. What were we doing in that country? We invaded them! They didn’t attack us. Of course they resisted the invasion. The men who dreamed up that war should be in jail. And we should have a draft, so that no one ever again sends young men off to suffer—and kill so many people.
I had the same feelings; and I believe Eastwood and Cooper wanted to have this effect on their audience. Their film holds up a mirror to the U.S. and says we are a society that adores violence. It contains many haunting and pointedly-political moments, notably the documentary-like scenes of maimed soldiers. Or when Debbie Lee, the mother of slain Navy Seal, Marc Lee, reads his last letter home at his burial and he smashes the idea of glory. “My question is when does glory fade away and become a wrongful crusade, or an unjustified means by which consumes one completely?”
Or in the last scene of the film, Chris Kyle goes into the kitchen to smooch with his wife before he takes the veteran who is going to kill him to a firing range to shoot. He’s holding a six gun and points at her playfully. Playfully? This man is the savage. And why is he taking four hours out of his weekend just to drive to and from a shooting range?
It is going to take America a long time to come to terms with the Iraq war. Some day they will make movies about chickenhawk neocons who pushed the war, some day there will be a flood of Iraqi movies about what the war did to their society, some day we will look back in horror on Islamophobia in the way we faced anti-Semitism, much later. For the time being there is American Sniper, about how America turned a simple Texas man into a monster.