American Sniper is a humanizing, yet polarizing film
Above all, Eastwood’s war film is a compassionate portrait of a modern warrior. It shows a man torn between love and war, between duty to country and duty to family. It’s an important film for a country that has increasingly shown a class divide: that of the warrior, a duty-driven volunteer, and frankly, everyone else.
There are some glaring errors, sure: Kyle is portrayed to be 30 in BUD/S (he was actually 26), and he speaks on the phone to his wife, Taya, during tactical operations; in the book, he is back on the base on a sat phone when a firefight breaks out. But overall, American Sniper shows the reality of combat from a typically quiet and misunderstood portion of the military which has, unwittingly, become part of the national spotlight.
I think that its very telling that the most vehemently outspoken against the film (like Lindy West, for example) spew the exact kind of vitriolic hate that they claim to be speaking out against. She talks about “simplistic patriots” and yet has a YouTube video where she scarfs down Candy Corn Oreo’s while proudly announcing “this is for you, America.” Can’t make this stuff up.
And yet amongst all the backlash for Seth Rogen and Michael Moore, it is the ability to speak your mind, no matter how simplistic or misguided, that makes us different from our enemies, and I fully support their right to pause between bites of Twinkies and say, well, something, no matter how ignorant or stupid it appears. I fully supported Seth Rogen’s film when Kim Jong-Un got his ankle braces in a bind, so how about a little common courtesy regarding the rough men who sacrifice their lives, their families who sacrifice even more, and for those who gave their lives in defense of these freedoms.
The film has precisely as much political jingoism as the killing fields: that is to say, absolutely none. In battle, foreign policy doesn’t exist, politics don’t exist; the only thing that matters is the guy to your left and right, and the moral compass you use to guide each other through making tough decisions based on strict rules of engagement. Critics who are framing the film as ‘Republican’ or ‘conservative’ are simply missing the bigger picture: a film like Eastwood’s only sticks out because it rejects the liberal progressivism of standard Hollywood faire (I’m looking at you, Rogen), not because Eastwood has an agenda.
For instance, I recently watched Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. A fun flick, but there is a clear anti-gun bias. Simply put, in the film, once an ape has possession of a rifle, he becomes a deadly weapon, making expert shots at 300 yards without looking down the sights. Hilarious. In American Sniper, we watch Chris Kyle struggle through sniper school.
In one scene that really shows the grittiness of combat, Chris takes his first kill. It’s a woman with a chi-com grenade getting ready to ambush a Marine squad on patrol. This actually happened in Nasiriyah during the invasion in 2003, on Kyle’s 1st deployment. The Marine Sniper spotting for Kyle in the film enjoys the kill, saying “wicked bitch,” and I was pleased to see Marine Corps attitudes on display proudly (not to mention age-appropriate Marines, I can’t stand seeing some HGH-loaded 40 year old Hollywood star acting as a 20 year old Marine). He congratulates Kyle, who snaps back, “Get the fuck off me.” I thought this was a touching scene. Chris returns to base and fellow SEALs give him shit for “popping his combat cherry,” and he opens up about the woman. Says it’s the most evil thing he’s ever witnessed. This isn’t a proud moment, this is a man who recognizes that it costs a part of himself every time he takes a shot. He’s starting to understand the sacrifices that come with being a Navy SEAL.
Critics of the film have called Kyle a “simplistic patriot” because he labels the enemy as “savages.” Lindy West, specifically, writes her scathing review based on the film trailer, and obviously never read Chris’s book. He continuously writes how the Iraqi people are proud, and just like us, but savages live amongst them. For those of us who served on the front lines, that’s exactly what we saw as well. People who wanted to live a regular life, have a job, a family, put food on the table. And then there were the absolute scum of the earth. Terrorist fighters flooded into Iraq because it was a place they could try to kill Americans. They tortured kids, they cut their heads off, their fingers off, stoned women to death for being out of hijab, and they blew themselves up in the hopes of taking a few of us with them.
General Mattis once said in a congressional hearing, “it’s fun to kill guys like that.”
Most liberal and progressive minded individuals are uncomfortable hearing that from a warrior. They think a warrior should feel uncomfortable when taking a shot. War is the worst thing in the world, but when war is necessary and good people do nothing, that is even worse.
There’s a metaphor in the film that most service members will recognize, that of the sheep, the wolves, and the sheep dog. What’s missing is it’s completion. When the wolves aren’t attacking, the sheep resent the sheep dog, always nipping at their heels, keeping them rounded up, because he knows that the wolf is out there, and he knows it has sharp gnashing teeth and claws. The sheep, seeing that the dog also has teeth and claws, fear the dog.
This is the type of narrative warriors have come to understand about the world, that there are the soft (sheep), there are predators (wolves), and there are protectors (the sheepdogs).
“You live a soft life. You don’t know what goes on over there.”
I’ve read several criticisms that the film “didn’t portray PTSD well enough,” but I strongly feel like it’s inappropriate to project your own idea of how combat stress might manifest because you enjoyed The Hurt Locker. You don’t know combat, you don’t know how it affects people, and you don’t know how you would react. Part of becoming a combat veteran is having the veil of ignorance brutally torn from your eyes. You learn how deeply ingrained film, media, and video game war are in your own psyche, and how misguided making judgments based on those ideas are. You learn that most of what people call PTSD is actually adaptive survival techniques. You learn the true value of life, especially if you have to take one. You discover a deep vulnerability being constructed of the same soft flesh as your enemy.
American Sniper is probably the best biopic of the Iraq War. From the opening crawl and morning prayer, this movie brought it all back. The smell of moth balls and cosmoline. Onions, BO, and shit in the streets. The flies. The flies, the flies, the flies. The metallic smell of blood. The unique scent of cordite and burnt sub-dermal fat. The smell of the burn pits.
I don’t think there was a dry eye in the theater. I cried because the film reminded me of how rare men like Chris Kyle are. Fewer men will become a Navy SEAL this year than will be drafted into the NFL. And 99% of them will remain faceless in their struggle to keep America, and the world at large, safe. They will sacrifice their bodies, their lives, and 90% of them will sacrifice their marriage. Kyle, for example, was shot, blew both his knees out, his back, and was in several IED explosions. The man was in constant physical pain and made the difficult choice to get out of the Navy. He wound up drinking too much and flipped his truck. Yet he didn’t allow himself to become a victim. He took responsibility and turned his life around.
This is the story we should focus on. The real story here, which Clint Eastwood has masterfully told. It’s like a portrait painted so well you cannot see the brushstrokes. I can’t recommend this film enough.
Semper Fi, Legend. Rest easy.