“There’s an evil out there I’ve never seen before,” says Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL whose biggest claim to fame is a reputation for having killed 160 people (confirmed) during his multiple tours in Iraq, a record for Americans who aren’t mobsters or serial killers. (Kyle claimed in his memoir that the number was much higher: around 255, although this is unsubstantiated.) Kyle’s driving force is the idea that pure evil exists out there in the world, and it’s his job to locate it and destroy it, to protect all that is good. And all that is good turns out to be America and Americans and the American way of life. That’s the driving force of the film American Sniper, directed by Clint Eastwood, based on Kyle’s memoir, and starring Bradley Cooper as Kyle.
Clint Eastwood is a talented but also a calculating director, and he fashions American Sniper like a video game. (Or perhaps video games have simply caught on to military maneuvers, and they now just mimic each other. I hear that American Sniper is quite accurate militarily-speaking.) There are two scenes that particularly stuck in my memory, both of them involving Chris Kyle having to decide whether to shoot children who have come into contact with extremely dangerous weapons. These two scenes feel particularly manipulative coming from a movie that so fixates on the “pure evilness” of the people we’re fighting in that part of the world. There is no attempt to understand Iraq beyond a kind of primeval distrust and fear of its people and their culture. They are Eastwood’s supreme bogeys, and this is his Iraqi Chainsaw Massacre.
Eastwood deliberately simplifies the political and moral angles of the war in Iraq in order to isolate and thus elevate the experiences, gritty, harrowing, and stupefyingly violent as they may be, of American soldiers in Iraq. The movie ignores questions of why we were and are in Iraq, disregards the cultural differences at the root of our conflicts in the Middle East, and conveniently forgets that America might share some of the blame in those conflicts. Perhaps Eastwood feels these grey areas would complicate his own mission, that of elevating Chris Kyle to the status of unquestionable American hero.
To a degree, I want to be on board with the moral logic of a movie like American Sniper and a man like Chris Kyle. I would love to think that war is as simple as “good verses evil.” But I know this not to be true, and so, to insist that it is, constitutes a dangerously happy lie, one that made me very depressed last night at the screening. American Sniper holds your attention, but it’s the kind of movie you don’t want lingering in your mind. The images are haunting, and the lie behind the movie is perhaps even more so. So yes, it’s effective, and yes, you’ll get your money’s worth if you want intense, apparently very accurate, dramatizations of the Iraq war. You’ll also get your money’s worth if you want to project some hero worship onto Chris Kyle, martyr to the cause. His story is heartbreaking; he is in some ways a hero. But to lionize him in this way, without fully exploring the damage done to him by the things he saw and did, is to ultimately dehumanize him and the many men and women who’ve gone to war.
The closest the movie comes to having an emotional core is its skimming of the surface of PTSD. We see Chris Kyle, finally home from his tours, sitting in his living room staring into the TV, which isn’t on; he’s looking past the TV, the memories of combat constantly replaying themselves in his mind. He’s a war zombie, seeing and feeling nothing, utterly zonked out, yet unable to forget the atrocities he experienced and enacted, unable to still the turbulent storm inside himself. Sudden loud noises make him jump, triggering an ingrained instinct forged by the ugliness and the tragedy he’s witnessed and in which he’s participated. But the film doesn’t ever deal with his PTSD directly. Kyle’s wife begs him to open up, but he refuses. He’s stubborn during a session with a psychiatrist. And when the shrink asks him what’s troubling him, Kyle replies that he’s bothered by the lives he can’t save because he’s at home, no longer serving his country. This is where Eastwood wants to trap us into equating killing with patriotism. Suddenly, Chris Kyle is supposed to be a modern-day Oscar Schindler, who bemoaned the fact that he couldn’t save more Jews. So the inner-conflict that Kyle suffers when he must point his gun at a child carrying a bomb is buried beneath the false notion that all patriotism is sacrosanct, all killing justified in the heat of battle. I can absolutely understand the character, and the man himself, wanting to bury this inner-conflict. But the fact that film does so is troubling beyond belief.
Instead, Eastwood conjures up as many violent interplays between American soldiers and Iraqi terrorists as he can, all of them a ringing reminder of both Chris Kyle’s prowess as a sniper and a chilling, horrifying visual encounter with an experience most of us will thankfully never have to remember. Movies about Iraq are for most of us the only immediate way we can experience what it was like for those who were and are actually there, engaged in the turmoil.
But what kind of message does a film like American Sniper send to say, a young boy who’s in love with the hyper-macho heroics of this Chris Kyle worship? We get Kyle’s own philosophy about the evils of the people in the Middle East. We get no measured exploration of the very complicated history between the Middle East and the Western world, and the ways in which our own country has done wrong, has many times been the aggressors, has acted as though we are the only country that matters.
There is much to be said for the effectiveness of American Sniper. Eastwood knows how to put the screws on the audience, and this film is nothing if not compelling. The movie’s two hours move fast, the scenes of conflict are truly disturbing and well-made, and Bradley Cooper is absolutely believable in his role. He masterfully captures that jock personality you’d expect from a Texas-born Navy SEAL, and he shows us the amount of mental effort required for Chris Kyle to keep all the hurt inside himself, an island of deep anguish. (His wife, played by Sienna Miller, suffers untold agonies trying to bring her husband back.)
If this movie makes you thankful for the sacrifices of American soldiers—and their families, who surely suffer in a magnitude of ways that do not end when, or if, their loved ones make it back home—great. But do we need lies to feel gratitude? Do we need oversimplifications, and platitudes about the Greatness of America, to love our country? And why must our love of country stamp out all consideration for a shared human experience that reaches across national lines? We are indeed a long way from fully understanding the Middle East or reaching any kind of peace in that world. And yes, there is evil there. But what of our own pernicious, subtle evils? American Sniper brings us no closer to examining these, and further entrenches the “us versus them” mentality that feeds the divide between our two cultures.