There’s been quite a firestorm (oh yea, pun intended) of controversy over the box-office hit movie American Sniper, and I can’t help but wade into it myself. In part, my interest in the topic has to do with the ways in which the debate speaks to the wider rift in American society between right and left, hawk and dove, rich and poor, North and South. I’ve observed that when reviewing the film people tend to conflate two things: the quality of the film as a film, and the social issues it raises. On both fronts, however, I come to the same conclusion: American Sniper is a trite piece of Hollywood pablum. The plot is weak; the acting stilted; and the depiction of the war and its impacts shallow and simple-minded. The only point of strength, in my opinion, is the cinematography, which is gripping and compelling.
Let’s start with the plot itself. In one of the worst scenes, in the middle of a firefight Chris Kyle makes a call to his wife and, with perfunctory tears streaming from his dusty eyes, promises her that he’s “ready to come home, baby.” (Is that even technically possible?) Another scene has Kyle hoping that a little boy doesn’t pick up a rocket propelled grenade. His relief when he drops it is palpable and kind of sweet. Alas, the real Chris Kyle would likely not have felt the same way, for in his autobiography he wrote “I hate the damn savages…I couldn’t give a flying fuck about the Iraqis.” And then there’s the requisite moment when Kyle sees the 9/11 attacks on TV. As the camera zooms in on him you can see his anger and determination rising. “Oh, I get it. This is what inspired him to fight and kill for America,” we’re supposed to think. Next thing we know he’s in Iraq, as if there were a link between the two.
The thin plot is a shame, because the topic has so much potential. For example, the director, Clint Eastwood, could have made the “duel” between Kyle and a famously lethal Syrian sniper more incisive. Aren’t they both doing the same thing–using arms to protect their own? Or he could have explored the meaning of making mistakes in war: how does a sniper confront killing someone in error? We do see Kyle become increasingly ambivalent about his job, but at least he can rest assured in his own righteousness. Yet in the real world, not every bullet or bomb hits its mark, nor is every mark correctly made.
Regardless, as others have pointed out, this is a work of fiction and not a documentary. But it’s hard to take it seriously when faced with such a barrage of tired clichés. How many movies have we seen about the anguished military wife, the PTSD-addled soldier, the camaraderie of troops, and the difficulty of extricating oneself from the horror and thrill of war? On that front, there is absolutely nothing new here. Not only have we trod this same ground, we’ve done so in more creative and interesting ways.
Okay, so much for the plot. What about the war and what it has to say about its impact on soldiers, their families and society? This is where American Sniper goes from being a bad movie to a dangerous one, for in its complete lack of introspection it manages to trivialize the suffering of those whose country we invaded, exaggerate the good we did, and paint the vast majority of Iraqis as bloodthirsty savages solely bent on murdering heroic American liberators. There is not a single moment of moral doubt, no instance in which an American does wrong or even comes close to doing wrong; it is so black and white that, absent any other information, you are left with the feeling that our moral superiority is boundless, as is the depravity of the Iraqis.
The real Chris Kyle felt the same way. As others have noted, in his autobiography he said as much, and so in that sense American Sniper is accurate: it portrays the simplistic, flag-waving, God-fearing, gun-toting American militarism in all its self-assured arrogance. In the movie there is no “collateral damage.” No Abu Ghraib, no lack of WMDs, no mention of the disastrous de-baathification of the country in the wake of the fall of Saddam Hussein, no hint that we armed Osama Bin Laden in the late 80s, no sign of the photos of Donald Rumsfeld shaking Saddam’s hand when it was convenient for us to forge an alliance (and getting him chemical weapons) In this world, war is simple: on one side are the righteous fighters for liberty, and on the other are the backward defenders of evil.
Yes, we see how war damages the soul and psyche of soldiers. We see their families fall apart, and we see their brothers-in-arms killed and maimed by the enemy. What ought to worry us is the notion that in war there is clarity of cause and purpose and mission. What, exactly, have we been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan? Has the goal been to kill Bin Laden, eradicate the Taliban and Al Qaeda, create an oasis of democracy in the Middle east, Secure access to cheap oil, or engage in nation-building? I don’t think anyone knows, and American Sniper doesn’t try to answer that question. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course; this is a film about one solider and his experience “over there,” not the politics behind the war.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the criticism is misplaced our inappropriate. The War on Terror has been so costly that we can little afford to confront it in unexamined terms. We’ve spent trillions of dollars and damaged the lives of hundreds of thousands–Iraqi, Afghani, Pakistani and American. Despite that, it’s hard to argue we’re any better off.
The job of soldiers like Kyle is thankless. We send them off to do our bidding, and apart from flag waving and bumper stickers, do little to support them upon their return. It is not their fault when they fight unwinnable wars. The sniper perches on the roof and, as best he can, tries to fulfill the mission assigned to him.
While we are probably past the point of atonement for the destruction we have wrought in the Middle East, we can at least ask the questions that, hopefully, will prevent us from making the same mistakes again. My sincerest hope is that the next time a brave young man or woman sees a 9/11, we give him or her the opportunity to serve the country in other ways: diplomacy, social entrepreneurship, peace keeping, policymaking, and so on. Maybe then we can direct the idealism and passion of our nation’s youth in ways that can live up to the ideal of America as a “Beacon on the Hill” and a bastion of freedom and democracy.
Other Reviews: Good, Bad, and Ambivalent
‘American Sniper’ Is Almost Too Dumb to Criticize (Rolling Stone)
Film Review: ‘American Sniper’ (Variety)
The Demonization of Chris Kyle (National Review)