American Sniper (2014)
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writer: Jason Hall
Cinematography: Tom Stern
by Jon Cvack
I’m still on the fence about this one. Eastwood ended up calling it an anti-war movie. Given his libertarian politics I don’t think this was dishonest. I got into a great argument with my friend who was on the Left side, arguing that it celebrated death and spent too little time looking to the war itself or the effects on veterans. I’m much more divided. In the end, Kyle was killed because of another veteran’s mental illness, and he had only gotten involved with that other soldier in order to help deal with his own mental illness.
Right before seeing the film I had read "Lone Survivor" which is an absolutely incredible book and actually exceeds the horrors as presented in the film. Marcus Luttrell talks about the training he underwent to become a Navy Seal, which is one of the most awesome accomplishments I think a person could make in their lifetime. I was disappointed that Eastwood really breezed over what Seal training involved.
Nevertheless, Chris Kyle was a man who was working a boring job, riding bulls, and hoping for something more. When he catches his girlfriend fucking another dude and 9/11 occurs they add up to him wanting to do something more significant with his life. It was this point that really hit home to me. In moments of sheer boredom and confusion I too have thought about joining the military in order to do something significant and see the world. It’d be cool to join the Seals, though I’m sure I would last about a day before ringing the bell. Of course the next day comes and the fantasy fades.
Kyle discovers that he has a natural sharp shooting ability and thus begins his journey toward becoming the deadliest sniper in American history. I haven’t read the book yet, though I’ve heard that, like Lone Survivor, American Sniper the film doesn’t really dive as heavily into what the book contains. As my friend says, the film became a classic western, a fight between the ‘dark skinned outlaws’ and the ‘white saviors.’ Sure, it’s very trite and arguably offensive, but I also think some context here is required given the fact that the film was directed by one of the most famous western heroes of American cinema, who’s been very open about where he stands politically. To disagree with the film runs the risk of simply disagreeing with its politics, and I just don't agree with that approach to art. I think that Eastwood was exploring a Right-sided analysis of War's effects on our armed forces, and to dismiss the film due to its politics is simply another contribution to the ongoing division within between Right and Left politics.
However, I do take issue with the fact that all of the Iraqis are presented as evil. I’m sure I could find a few exceptions to the issue. It’s just that the film never explores why these men, women, and sometimes children were willing to kill American soldiers (see Battle for Haditha); not that there is any defensible reason to kill anyone, but there is the overlying problem of a poorly executed war that crumbled an economy and forced the civilians to find any means necessary to survive, or worse, caused many to see the Americans as foreign invaders who tore apart their relatively stable country, and destroyed many of their families.
Chris Kyle (Chris Cooper) starts to suffer from all the death he brings about. He’s on edge and unable to function. He can hardly interact with his child (or baby doll) and wife. He becomes obsessed with returning back to help his fellow soldiers no matter the risk. The one thing I take issue with from all those on the Left who criticize the film is failing to keep in mind that half the country and many of the soldiers indeed thought that their enemies were involved with 9/11. Marcus Luttrell speaks to the idea that it’s very easy to criticize and pass judgment on soldiers for indiscriminate murder, but when you’re over there, and you see that a lot of people want to hurt Americans - no matter the reason - specifically soldiers, basing their entire existence on this mission, then it’s really just ignorance that allows for such superficial commentary. It reminds me of that scene in The Wire Season 4 when the sociologists try to take what they learned in academia and apply it practically in the inner city classroom, witnessing that no amount of empathy or intellectualizing is necessarily going to draw back aggression. I completely understand that our invasion led to Iraqi's wanting to kill American soldiers, I just don't think these soldiers had the time to break down the socio-economic factors as to why this might be. Added is the more powerful idea Eastwood presents in Flags of Our Fathers, Spielberg with Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan, and most great war films explore in one way or another - the commitment to help your brothers in arms, no matter the mission; where the primary goal is keeping your brothers and sisters alive.
When people try to tell the best of the best that what they did was wrong, and they’re criticized for trying to keep the country safe as they were trained and ordered to do, it’s just doesn’t sit right with me. I think it's safe to say that until you’re over there you have no idea what you’re talking about, highlighting the privileged position you're able to speak from. Granted Luttrell, and Kyle, and Eastwood are positioned on the Right, but to use that as any reason as to why they’re wrong and the Left is right is despicable. This is a complicated issue, and I would trust the ones over there who are dealing with the situation to best assess why they’re doing it and what the enemy looks like in the micro sense. From a macro perspective, we can support the soldiers by criticizing the war and discovering that it was poorly strategized.
In light of that, I imagine Kyle was absolutely thinking of his fellow soldiers who could use his expertise. For the time being it was his only way to help them. Soon that would be abandoned and he would offer his aid in another way. Sure, the film perhaps spent too much time focusing on the killing rather than the horrors. It could have gone deaper. As liberals, we should empathize with these individuals. Bill Maher called Kyle a psychopath. I think that’s going too far. He was a person who found what he was good at, and used it, right or wrong, to help his brothers in arms the best he could.
Still, we never get the sense that there never should have been a war to begin with, and so I do question Eastwood's professing an anti-war stance. I think that if Eastwood had explored these complex issues the film would have been far better. Instead, those ideas were replaced with action and that’s the films major fault. It relies too heavily on dated action tropes, with indiscriminate killings of the 'colored enemy' as seen in any action driven Van Damme, Seagal, Schwarzenegger, or Stallone film from the 80s/90s, where the Middle Easterner were near always the enemy.
I compare this film most easily to The Hurt Locker, in which Jeremy Renner deals with the same addiction and desire to help his fellow soldiers, which also isn't some overt anti-war film either. And yet the left celebrated it for being such. In the end, Jeremy doesn’t return home to help his fellow veterans. He returns to battle. Luckily, his craft was dismantling bombs. But what if his craft was sharp shooting? I think these movies are far more similar than anyone’s giving credit to. They’re action movies that deal with significant war issues. In that sense, American Sniper’s intentions are honorable. It’s not some action-only shoot-em-up. It’s also not perfect. But it was Kyle’s story, not Eastwood’s. I thought it was important and I actually blame his fans for celebrating too much of the killing and too little of the mental illness.
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