I just saw American Sniper on DVD. You may remember that this film caused some controversy early this year for supposedly being pro-war and portraying the Iraqis as savages and monsters. A planned screening at the University of Michigan was scotched because students complained that it was “anti-Muslim”.
First things first: the film is very good. Clint Eastwood’s directing is sharp and clear. Bradley Cooper gives an astonishing subdued performance as Chris Kyle. It is tense, well-paced and definitely worth your time (although it is definitely not for children as it features some brutal violence).
I can also report that the political aspects are massively overblown. As with Eastwood’s previous Letters from Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers (and the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker) the politics is subdued if it exists at all. It focuses heavily on the experience of the soldiers, both in the war and when they get home. While Kyle says he is not haunted by the people he killed (only the people he failed to save), the film hints that this is not entirely true. Cooper’s nuanced performance and Eastwood’s excellent direction suggest that the Kyle’s battle wounds go deeper than he lets on. But it’s not hammered home. It is not broadcast with screaming banners and clunky dialogue. You have to watch and think.
And I think that’s what bothers many liberals about the movie. They wanted a movie that would portray Kyle — a sniper who likely claimed over 200 kills — as a monster. They wanted it to get into what a mistake the Iraq War was. And that it was made by the man who gave a memorable anti-Obama speech at the 2012 Republican convention only exacerbated that need. But the movie steadfastly avoids politics (just as Letters avoided any politicizing about the Japanese Empire). You can draw whatever conclusions you want — that the war was a mistake or that the war was a good idea. But the movie cares mainly about the stress, the terror and the cost that our soldiers endure.
(As for the movie not being sympathetic to the Iraqis: it actually does get into it a little, especially one brutal sequence that demonstrates clearly that many Iraqis were caught between a rock and a hard place — wanting to help the US, but facing horrific retaliation if they did. There are scenes showing the heavy cost the war took on the Iraqi people. The main antagonist of the film is also humanized a little, showing his family and hinting at a past. But because the movie is mainly concerned with Kyle, these things are subtle and again require you to watch … and think.)
There’s a line from the movie Black Hawk Down, another excellent war film, that I’m fond of:
When I go home people’ll ask me, “Hey Hoot, why do you do it man? What, you some kinda war junkie?” You know what I’ll say? I won’t say a goddamn word. Why? They won’t understand. They won’t understand why we do it. They won’t understand that it’s about the men next to you, and that’s it. That’s all it is.
That quote is the key to understanding American Sniper. It’s a good movie. It might even be a great movie. You should see it. And stuff the politics.