Does Anyone Remember American Sniper?

Chris Kyle’s memoir American Sniper was a best-seller in 2012, and in 2014, when the movie version was released, the film was even bigger. I’m not exactly sure, but I’d bet American Sniper the book has outsold all other Iraq and Afghanistan war books combined. Likewise, the movie. Both seemed to matter; for a while they were all people talked about. What you thought about Chris Kyle the person and his book and how you felt about Clint Eastwood’s movie meant something: how you felt about them was how you felt about the wars, how you felt about the military, how you felt about veterans, pretty much how you felt about, well, America.

2018 is not 2014, and it’s been a couple of years since anyone I know has wanted to talk about American Sniper. The other week I caught a bit of the movie on TV on a Sunday afternoon while flipping channels between innings of a Mets game. That struck me as an ominous marker of American Sniper‘s place in the cultural memory–a sign that it was quickly moving past irrelevancy toward oblivion. Why has this happened? I don’t know, maybe it was just the flavor-of-the-day to begin with, possessing as much long-lasting significance as a Tamagotchi. Maybe it was more; I can throw out some possibilities. I think the facts of Kyle’s death, at the hands of a former Marine he was trying to help, really screws with people’s ability to decide whether he was a hero, a victim, or something else. His death in that way, as with Pat Tillman’s death in a friendly-fire incident, really short-circuits the logic of respect and reverence that might be or should be his due. Or, maybe it’s all the after-the-fact stuff that’s emerged about the real Chris Kyle that has deflated his reputation and caused people to temper their enthusiasm and lose interest. Maybe his star as a polarizing love-him-or-hate-him national figure has been eclipsed by the even more polarizing ascent of Donald Trump.

Whatever, I think our contemporary moment is an emptier place without Chris Kyle and Pat Tillman. They should be our war-heroes, and surely if they were still alive millions of Americans would hang on their every word. What if they still lived and had Twitter accounts? Veterans Twitter, and to a certain extent, the public veteran presence generally, is a mess, full of pretenders, profiteers, and self-promoters, men and women with thin voices lacking moral and military gravitas, incapable of calming the anxieties and shouldering the burdens of a worried divided people. In other words, leaderless. It’s easy to speculate that Kyle would be a conservative icon for like-minded veterans and members of the public, racking up millions of followers and thousands of likes proclaiming the virtues of a good-man-with-a-gun while “owning the libs” with his well-aimed Twitter shots. In contrast, Tillman might be the Democratic Party savior: a warrior of the highest order who despises Trump, everything he stands for, and everyone who supports him. I don’t know, maybe I have their politics completely wrong. Maybe the two wouldn’t even be on Twitter, but retired to the farm. I doubt it, though–no one’s retiring to the farm these days. Maybe they would be false gods, with feet-of-clay like everyone else. Maybe they could speak across party lines, wise voices for unity and reconciliation, leading us in a national singalong of Kumbaya. As we drift toward Civil War II in their absence we can only wonder.

To return to American Sniper, here are ten questions that I think are important to think about in regard to (mostly) the movie.

  1. Why was American Sniper so popular?
  2. Is American Sniper a pro-war or anti-war movie? Just because a movie shows “the human cost of war,” does that make it “anti-war”?
  3. Is Chris Kyle a hero or a victim?
  4. Does American Sniper exploit and demean Iraqis?
  5. What accounts for American fascination with SEALs and snipers?
  6. What does American Sniper ask us to think about Chris Kyle’s wife Taya?
  7. What do we make of the end of the movie—Chris Kyle’s battle with PTSD, his death, and his funeral? How do those events shape or change our perceptions of the early parts of the movie?
  8. How is American Sniper the movie different from American Sniper the book?
  9. What qualities do director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall bring to the movie that help make it so striking?
  10. What qualities do actors Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller bring to the movie to make it so compelling?

Below I’ve excerpted bits-and-pieces from several reviews of American Sniper that appeared upon its release and also comments from interviews with director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall. I’ve also added a sentence of my own comment to each excerpt.

Army Iraq vet (infantry) and poet Brian Turner, “I Served in Iraq and American SniperGets It Right. But It’s Still Not the War Film We Need.”  The Vulture, Jan 22, 2015.

The film made me remember something else, too: the oft-repeated phrase We should just drop a nuke and turn this whole goddamn place into a glass fucking parking lot. This was an enlargement of what I’d regularly heard prior to deploying from Ft. Lewis, Washington: I’m going to go over there and shoot somebody in the face. And so, what started as an erasure of the signature of one’s identity, their face, evolved into the complete erasure of a civilization. But the thing is, I don’t think there was any clue about what was actually being erased in the first place. And in that cluelessness lays the problem with American Sniper….

The biggest problem I have with American Sniper is also a problem I have with myself. It’s a problem I sometimes find in my own work, and it’s an American problem: We don’t see, or even try to see, actual Iraqi people. We lack the empathy necessary to see them as fully human. In American Sniper, Iraqi men, women, and children are known and defined only in relation to combat and the potential threat they pose. Their bodies are the site and source of violence. In both the film and our collective imagination, their humanity is reduced in ways that, ultimately, define our own narrow humanity. In American Sniper, Iraqis are called “savages,” and the “streets are crawling” with them.

Comment:  Turner decries American desire to reduce war to simplistic acts of violence and bemoans American obliviousness to Iraqi history, culture, and people.

Army Iraq vet (artillery) and author Roy Scranton, “The Trauma Hero:  From Wilfred Owen to Redeployment to American Sniper. LARB, Jan 25, 2015.

American Sniperfocuses in tight on one man’s story of trauma, leaving out the complex questions of why Kyle was in Iraq being traumatized in the first place. The Iraqis in the film are villains, caricatures, and targets, and the only real opinion on them the film offers is Kyle’s. The Iraqis are all “savages” who threaten American lives and need to be killed. There’s some truth in this representation, insofar as this is how a lot of American soldiers thought. Yet the film obviates the questions of why any American soldiers were in Iraq, why they stayed there for eight years, why they had to kill thousands upon thousands of Iraqi civilians, and how we are to understand the long and ongoing bloodbath once called the “war on terror.” It does that precisely by turning a killer into a victim, a war hero into a trauma hero.

Comment:  Scranton wonders about the sympathetic portrait of Kyle at the expense of the hundreds of Iraqis he killed and the thousands more killed by other American soldiers.

Journalist Susannah George, “Here’s What Moviegoers In Baghdad Think of American Sniper.” Global Post, Jan 28, 2015.

In Baghdad, where much of the film is set, the movie drew full crowds at one of the city’s new upscale cinemas. Dressed in a fur-collared coat and loafers, Mohammed says many of the showings were sold out, and he knows of people who had to book their tickets a day in advance during opening week.

But after just a week on screens, the Mansour Mall theater pulled the controversial war movie. A theater employee sitting at the box office says management made the decision “because the hero of this film boasts of killing more than 160 Muslims.”  The employee declined to give his name because he did not have permission to speak to journalists.

Comment:  George points out that many Iraqis wanted the same people dead that Americans did—insurgents, Al Qaeda, jihadists, future ISIS members, and sectarian warfarers.

Army Iraq vet (infantry) and author Colby Buzzell, “Chris Kyle and the Iraq War are More Complex Than American Sniper—Or Criticism of It.”  The Guardian, Jan 23, 2015.

I still didn’t get all the criticism. I liked Kyle – at least, the Kyle in the movie, as I know nothing about the one on the page or off camera. In the movie he did his job, did it well and hit all his enemy combatant targets with not a civilian killed. He followed the rules of engagement and, if anything, was a pretty squared away soldier – one I’d be honored to serve along side – and, if people think that the real Kyle was a monster for doing the job that our country sent him to do, then that must mean that they think I’m a monster as well. I also tried to do my job to the best of my abilities while over there, just so that we could all go home and nobody in my platoon would get killed.

Did I give a shit about the Iraq people? Yes, but I, too, joined the military and not the Peace Corps. I had a pretty good idea what I was getting myself into. War is shades of grey, but I had to view it in black and white while doing my job over there. I’d have gone mad if I hadn’t. It was us vs them, kill them before they kill you, and, as my Battalion Commander once told us all right before rolling into a heavily insurgent occupied city of Tal Afar, “Shoot first, shoot straight, protect the innocent and punish the deserving.”

Comment:  Buzzell sees a lot of himself in Kyle—a pretty good guy who did the job the military asked him to—and wonders whether if people hate Kyle, they hate him, too.

Marine Iraq vet (infantry) Jon Davis, “A Former Marine’s Review of American Sniper.” Time, Feb 9, 2015.

The scene that meant the most to me when thinking about Cooper’s acting ability was one that most people were probably bored by. I’ll throw a spoiler because the plot point really doesn’t matter. It was the scene where Kyle and his family are having the tire on their car changed. A Marine recognizes Kyle and comes up to thank him with all the “you saved me in, blah, blah, blah… and ‘a lot of guys didn’t come back, blah, blah, blah’” tropes that are in every war movie. What you probably didn’t notice about that scene was Cooper. To moviegoers he was boring, but what I saw was something I don’t understand how he got right.

In that scene, Cooper displays classic signs of a veteran who doesn’t enjoy being thanked. He immediately deeply retreats upon being recognized and becomes politely evasive. His speech breaks down into monosyllabic chirps of general acknowledgement, while not maintaining eye contact and attempting to not carry the conversation further. While I’ve never saved anybody, I’ve had this experience dozens of times when random strangers thank me for my service. You really can’t describe the feeling that follows, but last Veterans’ Day when my boss made a big deal about thanking me in front of all my students, a motive I am deeply appreciative of, I was overwhelmed with a feeling I can only describe as a profound and sudden sense of humiliation which I can’t begin to quite understand. All I can say is Cooper’s portrayal of this feeling was something I saw in his short chirps and expressionless awkward glances that communicated a level of detailed research, coaching, and acting, to say the least of getting to know realveterans that needs to be known and acknowledged.

Comment:  Davis is attracted to the scene that shows Kyle’s discomfort at being thanked for his service, and sees it as representative of the skill the Clint Eastwood/Jason Hall/Bradley Cooper team brought to the film. 

Army Afghanistan vet (infantry) and author Adrian Bonenberger, “There Are No War Heroes: A Veteran’s Review of American Sniper.”  The Concourse, Jan 23, 2015.

Kyle embraces his role as a Navy SEAL sniper, which is central to both the plot and his identity. It’s interesting that the literary and cinematic history of snipers goes unaddressed in the film; up until the 1990s or so, it’s difficult to find them mentioned in valorous or positive terms. (America’s first unequivocal sniper heroes were Randy Shughart and Gary Gordon, the Delta duo who insisted on landing amid hundreds of hostile Somalis during the Battle of Mogadishu, sacrificing themselves to save a wounded comrade during the events portrayed in both the book and the film Black Hawk Down). For much of human history, a person who stayed back from combat and killed the enemy from afar was seen as unscrupulous at best. The original sniper is Paris, who dastardly kills the Greek hero Achilles from long range with a bow and arrow; Michael Moore, always a lightning rod for progressives and conservatives alike, stated the case more strongly in a tweet this past weekend suggesting that snipers were cowards.

Comment:  Bonenberger explores America’s new-found fascination with snipers as emblematic of the modern American way-of-war.

Movie-maker Michael Moore, Tweet, Jan 18, 2015.

My uncle killed by sniper in WW2. We were taught snipers were cowards. Will shoot u in the back. Snipers aren’t heroes. And invaders r worse

Comment: Moore gets to the point quickly why he doesn’t like American Sniper.

American Sniper screenwriter Jason Hall interview with Charles Thorp.  Rolling Stone, Jan 28, 2015.

Q:  So how much of the script was pulled from the book American Sniper?

A:  The book was written less than a year after he got back from combat. There was a lot of great material in there, but I absolutely knew there was more to this guy than was in those pages. It was more about what happened when he was over there, which was useful. You could tell he still had his armor on when he was writing; however; there was a lot of edge there. It didn’t really get into what happened when he came home and what going to war had cost him. I wanted to take a deeper look at that.

Comment:  Hall explains that he knew there was a more complicated man and a better story than was revealed in the book version of American Sniper.

Jason Hall interview with Ted Johnson.  Variety, Jan 10, 2015.

“The cost is man, the toll is man, and it’s this man and every other soldier that fights.  If we understand that, maybe we won’t be so hasty into jumping into war, and if we understand that, maybe we’ll find a way of welcoming [veterans] home better.”

Comment:  Hall explains that the real point of American Sniper is the human cost of being a combat soldier.

American Sniper director Clint Eastwood interview with Stephen Galloway.  The Hollywood Reporter, March 16, 2015.

Q:  The film became quite controversial when it came out because there were… People said it, you know, glorifies war or glorifies American snipers. Is that how you view it?

A:  No I don’t think it glorifies… I think it glorifies it, sure. I mean in the first sequence he shoots down… Yeah, the sniping part is. But you know then eventually as that scene indicates that he’s getting… You can see it’s starting to tell on him and later on when he visits a psychiatrist and has to talk to him and the psychiatrist says did you do anything along the way over there that you maybe or you felt you shouldn’t have. And you could tell by the look on his face that yeah, he’s got some regrets in there. And that’s just the way it is. I think it’s anti and it’s… It just depends on how you want to look at it. It’s probably… I think the whole picture and with him dying and everything it’s no good deed going unpunished.

Comment:  Eastwood ponders whether or not American Sniper glorifies war.

 

 

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