Things we can learn from American Sniper:
You know the movie, right? It has not only been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, it could wind up selling more tickets than the other seven nominees combined. Plus, it’s triggered a left-right controversy that makes the old dust-up over Duck Dynasty seem like a tiny cultural blip.
American Sniper tells the story of Chris Kyle, a real-life Iraq War veteran and sharpshooter. The film is certainly powerful, and it celebrates our Iraq veterans. But it also eulogizes the killing of Iraq insurgents, including children, and critics feel it ought to be put in the context of an invasion that didn’t need to happen in the first place.
There’s been less conversation about the final scene in the movie, which shows the hero walking through his family home, where the kids are romping. He’s carrying a handgun, which he points at his wife, Taya, playfully telling her to, “Drop them drawers.” Taya says she can see he’s finally getting over his war traumas and back to his old fun-loving self.
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This is, by virtually any standard, insane behavior. Mike Huckabee, a big American Sniper fan, recently published a book called God, Guts, Grits and Gravy, which is so wildly opposed to any weapon regulation that Huckabee opens his chapter on modern education by complaining that public schools are anti-gun. Yet he also presents a list of universally accepted gun-safety rules, many of which boil down to: Don’t point it at anybody as a joke.
“Yeah, but if you want to complain about the casual treatment of guns in movies, you don’t have to look very hard on any Friday night,” said Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut. Murphy hasn’t seen the movie, but he’s one of Congress’ leading advocates of gun-control regulation. It’s not the world’s most rewarding job. In recent years, his colleagues have not only refused to pass an extremely modest bill on background checks, they’ve failed to ban the sale of guns to people on the terrorism watch list.
American Sniper is on one, supremely obvious level, a celebration of gun culture. But it’s also a cautionary tale. The real Chris Kyle was shot to death while the script was being written. He had volunteered to help a troubled veteran, Eddie Ray Routh, who had a history of violent behavior and was an apparent victim of post-traumatic stress. Kyle felt the best way to get him to relax was to take him to a shooting range. While they were there, Routh turned his gun on Kyle, and one of Kyle’s friends, killing them both.
American Sniper could actually be seen, at least in the final scene, as a good-gun, bad-gun message. The real Chris Kyle did enjoy walking around the house, twirling a pistol. His wife said that as the clouds lifted after his Iraq service, he would playfully point a gun at the television and pretend to shoot down the bad guys.
Jason Hall, who wrote the movie screenplay, said the scene was meant to both show Kyle in recovery and presage the violence that was about to occur off-screen.
“There’s a tension in the scene that builds toward the ending,” he said in a phone interview.
The U.S. gun lobby has pushed its cause so far that it, too, may be falling off a cliff. Texas, where Chris Kyle’s alleged murderer is going on trial next week, has always had a gun-friendly culture, so much so that visitors can bring concealed handguns into the state Capitol. Some people definitely do not think this goes far enough, and, on opening day of the Legislature last month, they demanded new laws making it legal to carry handguns in the open, preferably without a license.
One particularly bouncy group, Open Carry Tarrant County, flooded the office of Rep. Poncho Nevárez, a non-supportive Democrat. A video of the ensuing scene showed Nevárez, looking extremely wary, asking the demonstrators to leave his office, while one of them yelled back: “I’m asking you to leave my state.” When Nevárez tried to close his door, one of the protesters stuck his foot in it. This was all happening, remember, in a building where carrying concealed weapons is perfectly fine.
When it was all over, some legislators in both parties wore “I’m Poncho” badges in solidarity with Nevárez, who was assigned a security detail after he and his family received threats.
The leader of Open Carry Tarrant County, Kory Watkins, then posted another video in which he claimed that the resistant lawmakers were forgetting their duty was “to protect the Constitution. And let me remind you: Going against the Constitution is treason. And treason is punishable by death.”
Meanwhile, in the Texas Capitol, enthusiasm for watering down the gun laws seems to be dwindling. That could qualify as a happy ending.
© 2015 New York Times News Service