American Sniper wasn’t likely to win the Oscar for Best Picture, but it’s already made $308 million at the box office, more than the other seven nominees combined.
The film has found an appreciative, empathetic audience. In fact, I heard a few sniffles among my fellow moviegoers at the end, during the footage of Chris Kyle’s funeral procession.
The film tells Kyle’s story, from his boyhood in Texas through his marriage, four tours in Iraq as a highly skilled sniper, his struggle with PTSD, and his murder, allegedly by another former soldier who was losing his battle with his own post-war demons.
This is a story worth telling. We haven’t had the will to properly denounce the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld blunder in Iraq, but we have an obligation to acknowledge the patriotism, courage, and suffering of soldiers like Kyle, whom we ask to do our nation’s dirtiest and most dangerous work.
But they deserve a more complex chronicle than American Sniper. American war movies have never been known for their depth or subtlety, but “Sniper” never gets beyond a simpleminded and well-worn good-guys-versus-bad-guys theme and is filled with values that should make us uncomfortable.
I haven’t read Kyle’s book, but surely he merits a better portrayal than the flat, fictionalized character in the movie.
The oversimplification starts early. Around the dinner table Kyle’s stern, patriarchal father pontificates to his two sons: Boys, there’s three types of people in the world, sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. Ya'll better be sheepdogs.
Then he removes his belt and lays it ominously on the table. Kyle’s mother makes a mild protest, but it’s clear that she knows that she’d better keep her mouth shut, too.
As a boy, Kyle steals a Bible from a church pew, and he carries it with him through his four tours in Iraq. But as far as the audience can tell, the only part of it that he pays attention to is “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” a principle that Kyle admits lured his squad into a disastrous ambush.
Kyle readily and uncritically embraces the bronco-busting and beer-swilling values of his upbringing, which fit aptly into the military, as well. He’s most comfortable in Iraq among his fellow soldiers, whose principal values in the film are loyalty to the unit, super-macho aggression, sexism and a dash of homophobia.
Any doubts raised about the mission are quickly quashed. Kyle is driven by the straightforward motive to kill as many “savages” as possible.
Mostly, though, American Sniper is about shooting, a celebration of our national love affair with guns. But the depiction of blood splattering onto walls behind gunshot victims is a movie-making art mastered long ago; “Sniper” gives us merely more of the same. A lot more.
The uncritical values that the movie attaches to guns ought to disturb us. To indicate Kyle’s recovery from PTSD, the movie has him pointing a handgun at his wife to playfully demand sex (“Drop your drawers.”). In a striking violation of responsible handgun protocol, he casually leaves the cocked weapon on a shelf.
But we should probably be more disquieted by this poignant scene: Kyle recovers from his own post-Iraq struggles by helping other traumatized veterans. The road to recovery appears to involve more shooting. He coaches them in marksmanship. One former soldier, with one leg missing and the other badly mangled, finally hits the bull’s-eye. He says, “I feel like I got my balls back.”
Nobody cringed, and one wonders if this is what manhood in America has become, the ability to handle a firearm capably.
Nevertheless, these are the values that Kyle is passing on to his son at the end of the movie. He shows him how to hunt, of course, bequeathing hereditary secrets about a man’s place in the world (“Son, we gotta take care of the womenfolk.”).
“It’s a hard thing to stop a beating heart,” Kyle counsels his son. But above all, he says, “Never hesitate.”
Too bad Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld didn’t hesitate a little before we stumbled into Iraq. And we should hesitate before we uncritically accept the values in American Sniper.
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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