There’s been heavy flak, to say the least, over Clint Eastwood’s blockbuster film, American Sniper.
It started with film director Michael Moore’s take on snipers as “cowards” who shoot people in the back.”
Others soon piled on, like Seth Rogen, who compared the film to Nazi propaganda.
Outspoken Bill Maher went further, condemning real life Chris Kyle, on whom the movie is based, as a psychopathic killer.
Returning blows, Kid Rock hoped Michael Moore would “catch a fist to the mouth soon.”
Surprisingly, Jane Fonda tweeted her appreciation of the film: “Bradley Cooper sensational. Bravo Clint Eastwood.”
Nominated for six academy awards, including Best Movie, the controversy hasn’t gone away and, in all probability, precludes any Oscar possibility.
Anyway, I knew I had to see the film after both my dental hygienist and neighbor, first thing out of their mouths, asked if I’d seen it.
So I dutifully went the very next day to a matinee showing, surprised by the large audience on a weekday.
I was on the edge of my seat throughout, gripped by the film’s graphic, nearly non-stop violence spurting from nearly every Sadr City window, rooftop, or corner.
Not since Platoon had I seen a you-are-there war movie like this, replete with in your face carnage inflicted by a relentless, hidden foe relying on ambush.
Retired marine sniper Jeff Crenshaw says “It’s the most realistic thing I’ve seen since the battlefield. It shows the true nature of war and how awful it is and the toll it takes on a human being.”
Like Vietnam, not knowing who your foe is, possibly even a mother or child, you had to watch your back, and that’s where Kyle comes in, portrayed as protector, not assassin.
My take is that the film’s been misunderstood by its critics, even deliberately maligned by those with political agendas oriented to the Left. They hated the Iraqi war, thought it a ruse for oil interests. Nourishing grudges, they will neither forget nor forgive.
I found American Sniper neither a glorification of war nor right wing propaganda.
Neither a “Republican movie” nor a film appealing to innately angry audiences of Tea Party stripe.
In fact, it sidesteps politics altogether.
Even the Mahdhi insurgents are shown to be ferocious in defending what they regard as their turf against the invading American forces, superbly equipped with the latest weaponry and technology.
Hardly a psychopathic killer, Kyle is always shown as an interventionist, honing in on his target in the nick-of-time to safeguard his fellow soldiers at risk of a hurled grenade or a shot from a window.
At times he waits hard and long, reluctant to shoot a child who may be carrying an incendiary device towards unsuspecting American troops.
In another scene, he prays that a child struggling with a rocket grenade launcher will drop the weapon. He’s not in Iraq to kill children. Fortunately, the child drops the weapon.
Iraq is a place where you’d best never drop your guard, since it’s not clear who’s enemy, as we see when Chris and other soldiers get invited to a civilian’s home, which turns out to be a setup for ambush.
Kyle ultimately breaks down, telling his wife he wants to come home, clearly having his fill of war; in fact, four tours.
Clint Eastwood has defended his movie, echoed by Gary Sinise, saying that the movie is really about what happens to our soldiers on their return home, themselves victims of war.
Married and father of two children, he may be physically present, but mentally he’s absent as his troubled wife tells him.
He endures a nagging guilt he needs to be there to protect them.
Implying Kyle was a coward is simply way over the top.
As for Maher, who quotes Kyle’s autobiography in which he denounces his foes as “barbarians” and expresses pleasure in killing them, this is umbrage born of ignorance, not surprising in people who’ve never served a day in uniform or participated in combat, nor seen their fellows blown apart, tortured or shot at.
But let’s leave the verbal broadsides of the critics aside.
The film isn’t really about Kyle.
It’s about the American soldier, or all soldiers for that matter.
Unfortunately, the critics have been engaged in killing off the messenger in failing to distinguish between statement and meaning, which is what artistic irony entails.
Literalists, they can’t fathom ambiguity.
In one scene, the at home veteran nearly kills the family’s pet fog, conflating its play with his young son as aggression.
Kyle clearly isn’t a well man.
The bottom line is that he suffers from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which includes all its pervasive symptoms:
Anger and irritability.
Difficulty in relationships
Inability to focus.
I’ve just come off reading Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, her masterful biography of WWII hero Louis Zamperini, who survived 48 days at sea in a rubber raft, only to land in the Japanese occupied Marshall Islands, then subsequently transported to Japan, where he endured near starvation and daily beatings at the hands of a sadistic camp commandant for two years.
Returning home at war’s end, Zamperini’s travail continued with nightmares in which his tormentor appeared, along with alcohol dependency, alienation from his wife and friends, a hatred for his captors, and a determined resolve to return to Japan and kill the man singularly responsible for heinous crimes afflicted on himself and fellow POWs.
In short, Zamperini suffered the classic symptoms of PTSD.
So what if Kyle wrote of his loathing of the enemy, Maher?
This is what inevitably happens whenever critics like Maher launch personal attacks, shallowly judging by symptoms and not rooting out causes, or lifting behavior from context.
Truth is, war often strips us of our humanity.
We say and do things alien to the better angels of ourselves.
PTSD is a wounding of the mind and spirit every bit as real as any physical wound.
Hardly simplistic, I found American Sniper a tell-it-like-it-is movie, replete with ambiguity of the kind integral to tensions formulated whenever humane values conflict with the killing mores of the battlefield.
I salute first lady Michelle Obama, speaking recently before a veteran’s group, who accurately appraised the film as “complex, emotional, and a realistic depiction of a veteran and his family.”
While I know there have been critics, I felt that, more often than not, this film touches on many of the emotions and experiences that I’ve heard firsthand from military families over these past few years. This movie reflects . . . the complex journeys that our men and women in uniform endure.
That resonates for me, a veteran.
What’s more, it speaks for millions of audience goers as well, from every demographic: red state and blue, gender, race, and ethnicity.
2 thoughts on “American Sniper: Anatomy of a Mauling”
I enjoyed the film, partly because I love movies in general and can find something to celebrate in almost any of them. But I also worked in Hollywood for decades, and see maybe 500 movies a year. I can’t help noticing what is or isn’t in a film, which isn’t quite the same as what emotions and thoughts viewers will have in reaction.
American Sniper benefits enormously from being in the right place at the right time. The issues are important and currently popular. When that kind of luck is in play, a movie merely has to remind people of something (kinda sorta) without screwing up, and it will sell tickets. What’s on the screen is mostly apolitical, but it still promotes impassioned discussions about politics and history. It’s basically a work of fiction though.
“Based on” grants legal license for a world of changes when adapting from a book. The film is vastly different from the tone of the autobiography, and numerous characters and events are combined, simplified, thrown out and/or made up for the sake of drama. Kyle (in the book) never once drew down on a child, and though there were enemy sharpshooters, none was an ex-Olympian, roof-jumping supervillain named Mustafa. The 1.2 mile “miracle shot” was against a random target. The sheepdog speech? Yeah, that never happened either.
Did Kyle even have PTSD in the movie? He sure did in the book, but we don’t see it onscreen. Don’t give me the “it’s subtle” argument. It’s just not there. He has some sleep disturbance, delays going home, and one sniffly phone call when he decides he’s had enough. But most people know someone with real PTSD. It’s both more dramatic, and slower to recover from. The disorder burns lives to the ground, and it nearly did in the real Chris Kyle’s case too.
Does the film deal with the rehab process? Not really. Group therapy and shooting at the range where everyone makes macho jokes and chuckles knowingly isn’t remotely realistic. It’s painful to readjust to normal life. It takes as much courage to do it as it does to survive combat, and we are told, but not shown, that Chris Kyle (magically) got better…just in time to get killed offscreen. That’s a real cheat, but as I said, all you have to do is bring up subjects dear to people at that moment in order to win at the box office.
The two things I enjoyed most were the style and directorial choices made for the combat scenes, and Cooper’s ability to make some of the dumbest “Captain America” dialogue I’ve heard since John Wayne died sound natural and unforced. Both of those things take skill. There’s a hazard in making what you intend to be an anti-war film (I’ll take Eastwood’s word on it) that shows mostly combat. Battles are photographically very exciting. Scenes of life with the family aren’t.
Thank you for your intelligent, informed reply, balanced in both tone and analysis. Granted that Hollywood versions of books have their fictional elements and, in my take, are likely inferior (I taught literature for forty years), Eastwood’s film transcends Kyle, even more so, since it transcends Kyle’s autobiography as well; in short, creating its own text for its own ends. Could it have been done better re: PTSD? Yes, I agree. Stll, even though “battles are photographically very exciting,” the horror of war through its verisimiltude is masterfully achieved and, that, too, is integral to the film’s raison d’etre.
Do audiences get it? I think so, their solemn silence at film end Its abundant witness.