When your icon of the enemy is complete
you will be able to kill without guilt,
slaughter without shame.
The thing you destroy will have become
merely an enemy of God, an impediment
to the sacred dialectic of history.
– “How to Create an Enemy” by Sam Keen
Collectively, we have been inundated with cultural offerings about the Iraq War; movies, music, protests, 24-hour news coverage, water cooler and dinner table discussions. We saw the reality of the Afghan war in “Restrepo.” After that documentary, any dramatization of the Iraq War narrative rings hollower than it should. But director Clint Eastwood doesn’t do himself any favors here by pulling a variation of his empty chair routine. This time, he rails against the foreign enemies of America instead of his perceived domestic ones. There are no neutrals in the world of “American Sniper.” Only a stark good vs. bad mentality that muddles the moments of nuance that should have driven the story. This is a story about a man struggling to become whole again, but you have to dig deep and stretch the script to get to that theme. That’s a shame, because this is an enjoyable movie to watch, even if it left the potential for a real and powerful conversation on the cutting room floor. (Review continues below synopsis.)
From director Clint Eastwood comes “American Sniper,” starring Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history. But there was much more to this true American hero than his skill with a rifle. U.S. Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle is sent to Iraq with only one mission: to protect his brothers-in-arms. His pinpoint accuracy saves countless lives on the battlefield and, as stories of his courageous exploits spread, he earns the nickname “Legend.” However, his reputation is also growing behind enemy lines, putting a price on his head and making him a prime target of insurgents. Despite the danger, as well as the toll on his family at home, Chris serves through four harrowing tours of duty in Iraq, becoming emblematic of the SEAL creed to “leave no man behind.” But upon returning home, Chris finds that it is the war he can’t leave behind. (Synopsis by Warner Bros.)
There are an estimated 33.4 million Iraqis living across a variety of socio-economic and cultural lines. “American Sniper” would like you to believe that every single one of them exists solely to try to kill Americans. A single family is shown “helping” the Americans–but only to drive home the plot point that they will be brutally killed by the enemy. It’s the kind of hacky trope that you might expect in an “Expendables” movie. Here, it is neither realistic, believable, or more importantly, necessary. This oversimplification of the Iraqi culture reduces a complex situation into a single point of conflict. It is a cheap ploy in a movie that attempts to address the complicated issue of returning from military service.
The issue of post-traumatic stress syndrome is barely covered in the film. It is presented as an exclamation point on a sniper-vs-sniper action film more reminiscent of the WWII-set “Enemy at the Gates.” Chris Kyle’s tragic death is handled almost as an afterthought to the film’s action sequences, as if Eastwood and the writers didn’t know how to translate the complexity of PTSD to the screen in a coherent fashion, and opted for the easier path of a simplified action film. That choice, along with the black-and-white character structure (Iraqi = BAD, American = GOOD), causes the brief moments regarding the topic of PTSD to come across as jarring. Cooper does his best to navigate these moments, but no amount of acting can make up for the sudden introduction of a script element which has barely been set up. One of the few moments that works comes when Cooper is told to stay on a roof because the ground troops feel safer with him up there. It doesn’t matter whether they are or they aren’t–they simply believe the mythos. So much of “American Sniper” is based around its own mythos that it forgets the facts about Chris Kyle are more interesting than the dramatic embellishments.
Overall this comes off as a film that doesn’t have a voice. Is it a dramatization of Chris Kyle’s life and service? Is it a meditation on being a soldier? Is it simply an action flick that flails in its attempts to make a point? There is a lot of emotional patriotism thrown around to distract from the broad, one-dimensional characterizations of groups of people and characters. Eastwood shows Kyle signing up for the Navy after seeing the Twin Towers fall on television–though according to Kyle’s own autobiography, he actually joined in 1999 after injuring himself as a rodeo rider. But does playing hard and loose with the facts matter?
Shortly after 9/11 the country was gripped with justifiable patriotism, bordering on reverence. Across all social and political viewpoints, we rallied behind our national identity. Everyone wanted to support the troops. Some did so literally by sending care packages or volunteering with veterans. But there was (and is) a subset of people who felt that supporting the troops was as easy as putting a magnet on the back of their car and then talking loudly about how strongly they were supporting the troops. Never mind that they hadn’t actually done anything! The message sent was they didn’t even support the troops enough to put a permanent sticker on their car. As long as they could claim their patriotism with minimal effort, they were emboldened to broadcast the strength of their convictions. And quickly vilify anyone who said otherwise.
“American Sniper” caters to that subset of people, doing an excellent job of being emotional about war without ever having to get its hands dirty with the reality of war. Chris Kyle died because of our inadequate ability to forecast the mental and emotional strain on our soldiers returning from the war zone. He died while trying to close that gap himself in his own way, both for his own mental health and for his fellow soldiers. That is the story that should have been this film. We don’t need to see an overly-long dramatized sniper showdown that never happened. We don’t need to return to the war zone on each of his four tours. We’ve seen what soldiers have been through first hand thanks to the work of journalists like Sebastian Junger, films like “The Hurt Locker,” and the realities of our returning family and friends. Eastwood took the easy way out by making “American Sniper” a war movie. He could have delved deep into the reasons that Chris Kyle’s life ended the way it did. But the sad truth is no one would have gone to see that movie. Maybe Eastwood knew that most of us will only ever put that magnet on the back of our car.
“See It/ Rent It/ Skip It”: See it. It may not be the film that needed to be made, but it is still a good war movie. One hopes that something in this version honors Kyle’s life and brings comfort to his family.
THREE STARS out of four.
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Rated R for strong and disturbing war violence, and language throughout including some sexual references.
Runtime: 2 hours and 14 minutes