American Sniper (2014)

American Sniper posterClint Eastwood’s American Sniper is an extremely well-made piece of propaganda – I expect U.S. armed service recruiting offices will be backed up well into 2015, as they sign up members of the audience that made it the highest-grossing January opening ever. Early in the film, and also recounted in at least one edition of Chris Kyle’s autobiography, Wayne Kyle tells his son: “There are three kinds of people in the world: wolves, sheep, and sheepdogs.” Now, we don’t know if Kyle Sr. actually said this when Chris was growing up; the phrase also appeared in Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman’s book On Combat, published in 2004. But don’t mistake the point, American moviegoers. You are the sheep in this analogy (unless you sign up!)

Before I watched Eastwood’s film, I read Chris Kyle’s book (American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, written with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice.) It’s a painful read – a minimally reflective autohagiography that never fails to appropriate a cliche and manages to stuff the entire world into that wolf/sheep/sheepdog paradigm. Early on, Kyle says he’s “not interested in numbers,” except that it’s right there in the title (“Most Lethal”), and he tells the reader to “contact the Navy” for the exact number of his kills. (It’s somewhere between 160 and 255, but the numbers don’t matter to him. In another section, Kyle lists the medals he’s been awarded, says he has no interest in them, and then repeats his wife’s arguments for why they’re so important.) Contrary to the movie’s depiction, Kyle enlisted in the military not in response to terrorist attacks, but because he’d broken both wrists as a rodeo cowboy. He was also a ranch hand. He describes how he’d punch cows but would never punch a horse, because horses are intelligent. Kyle entered sniper school following his first tour in Iraq, not before, and while he was home he felt simmering contempt for the American civilians (sheep) he was protecting. “They just went about their lives like there was no war… It’s nice to be appreciated for doing your job.” At the same time, the only appreciation he offers is for fellow combat veterans. Kyle protests unconvincingly that he doesn’t care what people think about him; he participated in the book project because “I wanted to make sure my story was told right.” He’s a “black and white person,” uninterested in “shades of gray.” True enough.

It should be noted that HarperCollins revised American Sniper, removing material that was protested in court (Jesse Ventura was awarded $1.8 million against Kyle’s estate for defamation, regarding a subchapter in which Kyle claimed to have punched the former governor of Minnesota for disrespecting the troops.) Kyle’s accounts of his stateside murder of two would-be carjackers as well as the time he killed 30 post-Katrina looters are similarly suspect, as well as any parts of the book that don’t list corroborating witnesses, like the shark attack Kyle supposedly endured during SEAL training. Jason Hall’s screenplay repurposes scenes in the book where Kyle serves with Polish special forces (GROM) – I found myself doubting they happened as described, if only because fact-checking would have had the additional hurdle of a language barrier. Additionally, Kyle claimed he gave away his book profits to a veteran’s charity, while The National Review reported that only 2% of an estimated $3,000,000 was donated. Unreliable narrators are common in fiction, but I went into the movie knowing that Chris Kyle has a history of fabrication. (And THAT might have made an interesting movie – why someone who definitely served four tours in Iraq and is officially the top sniper in U.S. military history would need to invent additional exploits.)

Although I found the book one dimensional, I hoped the movie could deepen it. Clint Eastwood has made a handful of exquisitely gray movies: Unforgiven (1992), Mystic River (2003), A Perfect World (1993), as well as two better-than-decent war movies, Flags of Our Fathers (2006) and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006). I wondered what he might bring to Kyle’s story – would he tell it straight, or work a different angle? It’s a little of both, which confuses me. Eastwood told The Hollywood Reporter that American Sniper is “the biggest anti-war statement any film can make,” which must apply to the scenes of Kyle’s wife Taya, played beautifully by Sienna Miller, worrying and weeping. Kyle’s book isn’t remotely anti-war – he makes it clear that as far as he’s concerned the war in Iraq was entirely justified and promoted greater world peace. Plus, he loved every minute of it: “Man, this is going to be good, I thought. We’re going to kill massive amounts of bad guys and I’m going to be in the middle of it!” Also, “I loved what I did, I still do… I’m not lying or exaggerating to say it was fun.” Taya didn’t enjoy it, and neither the book nor the movie gives her any independent existence – she’s a weeper and a lover; according to Kyle “She had a way of making a pair of leather pants look smoking hot.” (The book contains many jokes but not much wit.) The movie certainly doesn’t convey much of the book’s yeehaw tone – if it had, the battle scenes might have been scored to raucous, high-spirited music (instead, it uses conventional martial drums to build conventional tension.)

Casting Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle suggests that Eastwood wants the audience to like the protagonist and sympathize with his story. Cooper gives an appealing performance – since we’re not inside Kyle’s head like the book is, we don’t get his aw-shucks self-deprecation, where he works every remark around to a backdoor compliment. But Cooper keeps the aw-shucks. His version of Kyle struggles with the moral quandaries of killing women and children; the real Kyle proudly states that he never second-guessed himself. (He also never shot a child, as depicted in the movie; a head-scratcher presumably included because other U.S. snipers in Iraq were compelled to do so.) So is Eastwood depicting the iconic American sailor? Cooper has called American Sniper a “modern-day cowboys and Indians movie,” which hits it on the nose.

The movie is generous to Kyle but also departs significantly from the real man; one of the crucial differences is that the movie’s Kyle disobeys orders several times (in the book, he strictly obeys the rules of engagement and makes a case that orders should be strictly followed, except when he bends the rules a little, wink wink.) The film’s climax has Kyle taking out his arch rival, enemy sniper Mustafa (always heralded by sinister sitar on the soundtrack), with an “impossible” shot over one mile distant. He’s commanded not to shoot, lest he reveal their position. He shoots anyway (in dramatic slow-motion with audience-appealing head splatter) and their position is revealed, bringing the enemy down upon them. The book mentions Mustafa only once, and Kyle says he never encountered the man but thought another U.S. sniper might have killed him. One can see why Eastwood and Hall wanted the through-line of the good sniper/evil sniper rivalry – it makes the drama more cohesive. But the cinematic climax also seems to be saying that the best soldiers will make their own calls and thereby achieve a greater good – a recipe for anarchy that the book’s Kyle would presumably take issue with. The movie claims that a $180,000 bounty was offered specifically for killing Kyle, when in reality $20,000-80,000 was the reward for killing any sniper. In the book, Kyle always shot next to another sniper – he points out that SEAL snipers shoot in pairs, as opposed to snipers from other branches, who use non-shooting spotters. The movie always shows Kyle as a lone gunman, with a spotter who cheers him on. Again, these changes seem to have been made to enhance the image of the hero – the cowboy/savior who is idolized by the men he protects.

I asked two men who served in Iraq for their impressions of the book and/or the movie. Although books and movies can be legitimately criticized by somebody who hasn’t experienced what they depict (I’m reacting to artistic choices and themes, not criticizing military tactics or denigrating the sacrifices of families who have served) I was curious about what somebody with a military background thought. One replied, “…the film has become a cultural litmus test…It’s being employed to further divide America culturally. Like the film? You’re real. Hate the film? You want Sharia law. It’s crap, in that sense.” Many who have criticized the movie have been labeled cowards and worse. “At the heart of the story is a sailor who performed exceptional feats in war and likely saved many American lives. Regrettably, his actions are politically irrelevant. Iraq is no better, America no safer.” Eastwood’s movie fits the first part of that, but the politics are barely addressed. The other reply is also interesting:

“He did save lives by killing many combatants, but I think we should celebrate heroes under the totality of the circumstances and each [commensurate] to their abilities. I don’t think his heroism was much greater than…any service member who was sent overseas and did their job. If heroes are measured by the number of killed or number of lives saved then the crews who flew the sorties over Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the greatest heroes ever, and not many people can name them, including me.”

It seems clear that Eastwood is telling the story of this specific man to present a hero; he’s also exaggerated and changed the real story to magnify that heroism. This wouldn’t matter as much in a work of fiction, but people who see this film believe they are getting the Chris Kyle story, much as people who watched A Beautiful Mind (2001) think they got the John Nash story (which wasn’t even close). In both cases, the truth is arguably more interesting, but filmmakers have their agendas.

The Hurt Locker (2008) won the Academy Award for Best Picture. It was a fictionalization of journalist Mark Boal’s interviews and observations when he was embedded with U.S. troops and bomb squads in Iraq. American Sniper is superficially similar to that movie – both have similar color, feel, and rhythm, and focus on a maverick who defies the chain of command to accomplish heroic feats. The Hurt Locker was denounced as inaccurate by many who served in Iraq, both in its details and in the character of its protagonist – they argued that such a “wild card” personality would never be given the opportunity to perform the work he did. So far, the backlash against American Sniper has been comparatively quiet – I read one essay by a soldier who said Eastwood’s film got the details right, although the author didn’t like how the Iraqis were depersonalized. (I think it’s a defensible artistic choice, because it’s true to how the real Kyle viewed Iraqis. Cowboys and Indians.)

François Truffaut is often credited with saying that it is impossible to make an anti-war film. In fact, Truffaut said he couldn’t make a film about the Battle of Algiers, because “to show something is to ennoble it.” Despite Eastwood’s claims to the contrary, American Sniper does ennoble the Iraq War. The film is rarely interesting as cinema, except for one battle in a sandstorm, when cinematic technique finally conveys some of the disorientation and horror most soldiers must have felt. Oliver Stone was more successful with his own anti-war movies, Platoon (1986) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989). In both cases, the audience is unable to root for anything except that war be stopped altogether. Eastwood’s own Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima depict the same conflict from opposite points of view, forcing the audience to empathize with soldiers on both sides. By contrast, American Sniper has more in common with Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1967). Pontecorvo used cinematic technique and music cues to align the audience’s mood, much as Eastwood does. The Battle of Algiers was a surprise hit in the United States, another similarity; furthermore, it was screened and analyzed by Pentagon officials in the lead-up to the Iraq war. For those who argue, as my companion did, that American Sniper shows how families suffer because of war, I’d point to Francis Coppola’s devastating Gardens of Stone (1987). American Sniper pumps up the audience, which probably explains its appeal. I wanted more of the horror. Critic Richard Alleva wrote about Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken (2014), “…there is plenty of violence and squalor on display – but somehow we remain discomfited onlookers rather than partners in the characters’ pain.” For Eastwood’s claim that his movie is anti-war to ring true, it needs a lot more of that pain.

Chris Kyle was shot and killed by a veteran he was working with after he’d returned home. The movie omits the “shot” part from the title card (the event is not dramatized.) I understand why the scene wasn’t included in the movie, but it points to a more interesting story than what’s onscreen. (The New Yorker tells it in a long article from June 3, 2013.) It would have muddied the patriotic superman story Eastwood apparently wanted to tell. He’s done better work. American Sniper is just proficient agitprop.