American Sniper is not a great movie. It’s not even a good movie. If the discussion around the movie does not interest you, you’ll easily have a more enjoyable, poignant, emotional, and visceral experience watching other war films.
All the same, the discussion has been raging ever since Chris Kyle’s autobiography came out and it has only gotten louder since this middling film adaption hit screens. This discussion is the kind of fodder that allows people outside of film criticism to throw their hat in the ring and discuss the ideological implications along with the point of view of the film. These pieces do great business online.
For example, Vox recently published not one, not two, but three reviews of American Sniper. Two are not great. Luckily Todd VanDerWerff holds the fort down with, of all things, a comparison to Rambo. A fundamental criticism in his piece is that assuming any war we engage in is just, is wrong. His view is that the film feeds this assumption that Kyle and many in the audience for this film have. Amanda Taub and Zack Beauchamp however decide to forget some of the fundamental constraints that surround this film; that American Sniper is a book adaption, a biopic, and that Chris Kyle is dead.
These three bits lend a more concise frame to the discussion over the film. Let’s rid ourselves of this assumption that every Iraq war related film has to deal with torture, the president, and the geopolitics of war.
As a book adaption, the hefty portion of the ideology in the film is Chris Kyle’s. He wrote the book and admittedly in the book there is some He-Man self-congratulation and some supposedly badass bar fights of questionable truthiness.
The film avoids the criticism of Kyle’s fibbing by taking out his unverifiable stories. Direct condemnation of Kyle’s more prickly actions can be forgiven and understood in light of the fact that Eastwood has to tread lightly because Kyle is dead. The film’s plain retelling punctuated by a rather plain and entirely fictionalized finale serves as a reminder that biopics and reality just don’t make an easy transition to cinema.
Biopics that are not book adaptations have a little more freedom; on the spectrum from complete falsification to strict adherence to the historically verifiable. Think on one end The Social Network, complete fiction with the exception of character names and Zuckerberg’s eventual ascendance to billionairedom with lawsuit in tow, and on the other end JOBS, a droll synopsis of Steve Jobs’ life. American Sniper falls between the two. JOBS, even as its mission was seemingly a recitation of the base facts, fictionalized some conversations between Wozniak and Jobs. Sniper on the other hand, includes much of the dialog word for word straight from the book. A key difference being JOBS seemingly had no perspective other than that of a Wikipedia editor and Sniper has. While we might bemoan JOBS and American Sniper as not interesting or not what we want it does not mean that the perspective in the film is not valid, or we shouldn’t view the film through this lens, or that it’s not honest to the individuals who holds that view.
In Amanda Taub’s review, we need to parse out some of Taub’s egregious rhetorical flourishes, “Hezbollah martyr video for the Fox News set; recruitment propaganda for culture-war extremists” which we can give the charity she does not give this film. The statements she makes about American Sniper as literal propaganda can be forgiven as youthful hyperbole, the kind of which we’ve all been guilty of at some point.
The “central moral metaphor” Taub points to is the wolf, sheep, sheepdog story Kyle is told as a child. There are problems with having any worldview based on a metaphor and Taub does a great job of extrapolating this metaphor to its worst possible extreme. It’s worth saying that there is an important distinction between how we deal with others in discussion and debate about war and how we treat enemy combatants. But no one is saying antiwar protesters should be treated like the Taliban. That extreme is not shared by the text. If anything, the greatest comment Eastwood makes on this metaphor is that it’s not that easy. He has war drive Kyle to almost kill the family watch dog. This is pretty explicitly saying that Kyle’s simplistic guiding childhood story doesn’t hold up to the truth of his experience. He also shows the PTSD is something outside of Kyle’s control, that he’s not comfortable with, that he doesn’t understand.
Taub makes another mistake with her, “falsify a true story” paragraphs.
“To maximize the bigness and badness of its available wolves, American Sniper rewrites history, turning the Iraq War into a response to the attacks of September 11, 2001…The film finds time for entire scenes of Kyle viewing TV news reports about Al-Qaeda’s 1998 bombings of US embassies, and the planes hitting the Twin Towers on 9/11. And when Kyle gets to Iraq, his commander explains that they are hunting the leaders of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. The inference we’re supposed to gather is clear: that Kyle is fighting the same people who attacked America in 1998 and 2001.”
My response is that the connection is not clear. Remember that this is from Kyle’s perspective. Beauchamp says in a brief summary video related to his review that Eastwood, “let the film get caught up in Kyle’s perspective” as if that was not the point of a biopic based on an autobiography of a recently deceased veteran. Bradley Cooper realizes and has said Kyle is a profoundly apolitical man. This book is about him as America’s gun not about where or why we pointed him where we did. For Kyle to say he feels no remorse, that he was justified no matter where he shot for whatever reason, and for the film to relay that to us feels pretty honest to me.
The connection in the book is tied to Kyle’s sense of patriotism, solidarity as an American. These two moments cement his sense of duty. Kyle’s view is definitely that America needs good guys to fight bad guys. And what resonates for many audiences in these moments is our own stories, remembering the sense that, yes, there is real evil in this world that wants to blow up buildings and put a drill through the skull of a child. Taub hangs her whole theory that the film is trying to show cause and effect between the towers and the war in Iraq. Eastwood never cuts back to those two events as justification for Kyle’s actions but we do go back to Kyle’s family.
Kyle views himself as sacrificing for his family and views his enemies as sacrificing their families. He says directly in the book that women and children as suicide bombers and combatants appalled him in a particular worse way than when his enemies were men.
Beauchamp has a problem with Kyle’s general indifference to who he’s shooting at. He says, “The politics of the Iraq war defy the film’s simple ‘wolves’ versus ‘sheepdogs’ moral framing,” and he is right. But that’s the thing about American Sniper. It doesn’t care. Kyle didn’t care. Is it the film’s fault for portraying this honestly? No.
“It is impossible to talk about ethics of fighting in Iraq without acknowledging both sides of this moral coin” and it’s a good thing film is not a discussion. It’s one sided. There is the film. There is the viewer. His use of “remotely honest portrayal” really means a portrayal that presents more than one view point. He keeps using the word “honest” as if a simple and single faceted viewpoint is not honest, like the mind of Chris Kyle is somehow not valid.