Dissecting American Sniper

American Sniper
American Sniper is an effective and often thrilling film, but the opaque nature of the film’s politics have us wondering how to read its messages.

Zac: Yes Lauren, we might get a little political in here. But I promise nothing crazy.

Lauren: Correction: you might get a little political in here. I am an ignoramus.

***Warning: Spoilers throughout.***

Zac: Well… Before we get into any of that, let’s talk about the movie, which I really quite liked. As a military thriller it has some tense set pieces, Bradley Cooper’s version of Chris Kyle is an engaging tortured soul, and the way that affects his life at home is compelling; if a bit under explored. I get the desire to keep jumping back to the action in the middle east, but I wish we got a scene or two more of Kyle’s interactions with his kids, or the apparent lack there of. Not only would that help flesh out his wife Taya’s side of the story, but it would also have made the later scenes with his kids resonate as he became the father he needed to be. These are all minor complaints though, and the film’s decision to firmly stick the films POV from Kyle’s viewpoint makes this omission make narrative sense here. What’s interesting is that POV also helps obfuscate the message the film is going for.

What were your thoughts on the film?  Were you on board with Cooper’s cowboy accent and attitude?

Lauren: Honestly it took a while for me to get past this beefed up version of Cooper because it made him look a little disproportionate, even his face looked wrong; but his performance did help pull my focus away from his physique. He still had that Cooper charm when it was needed, and at the start of the film he created such a likeable “character” that I was deeply invested in his story in minutes.

But then the war happened. I don’t know about getting political, but I will say that I feel like I’m going to be apologizing for everything I have to say about American Sniper. I don’t want to underplay what soldiers go through, nor do I want to talk badly about them, but I was not a fan of this movie and how Kyle’s story is presented. Let me break down what I mean:

Going in I didn’t know anything about the film’s inspiration, so I was expecting a glorious story that celebrates a man deemed to be an American hero; something in the same vein as Lone Survivor. But now that I’ve seen the movie I don’t really know what to think. Are we supposed to like Chris Kyle? Like I said before, Cooper had the charm going strong at first as we are introduced to the home life he started before the war, but once he goes into training he becomes a completely different person. He still gets along with his fellow soldiers, he’s friendly, outgoing, and protective, but the movie makes him look like a complete jerk to his wife as he puts his country and brothers in arms first, so much so that I wish they had just left the home visits out all together.

I understand that Kyle is dealing with a lot and there is more going on behind his disinterest and lack of connection to his family, but he just comes off as so selfish because most of these scenes just involve him ignoring his sobbing wife as she begs him to come back to her. With that said, it’s not just his familial relationships and marriage, or lack thereof, that does this. In an earlier part of the film he decides that being a sniper isn’t good enough for a man of his ability, so he leaves his post on high to go door to door with some other soldiers because he says he has a better understanding of the correct way to do that job. If that didn’t seem irresponsible enough, later on in the film he disobeys yet another order and puts numerous soldiers at risk in order to satisfy his need to do the one thing he cares about, killing an enemy sniper.

Is this really what this man was like? Are we supposed to be celebrating him? Something just doesn’t feel right.

Zac: There is the rub, isn’t it? My confusion stems more from a lack of understanding of what the film thematically stands for, and I think that goes hand in hand with your reading of Kyle. The film is a sort of Mona Lisa’s smile scenario; it can be interpreted in two wildly different ways. Is the film pro-war or anti-war? Does it think Kyle’s demeanor is the one we should hold? Or are we supposed to view him as oblivious in the face of the reality that is smacking him right in the face? I think the film can easily be read as a badass story of this super soldier who is a representative of the American dominance and necessity of intervention around the world. I would disagree and say that assessment is naive, but the film leaves itself open to that interpretation as it never really takes a side on anything until the very end when it canonized Kyle.

The film never questions or supports our involvement in Iraq. It never takes a side as to whether Kyle, who never questions the war, is right compared to what almost everyone around him is saying, that this violence is horrible. It never glorifies the violence, but it never really condemns it either. It never decides to take a stand on the way these wars affected our soldiers and our subsequent mistreatment of them once they become veterans. Giving screentime to these sort of things is one thing, but if you leave it all fairly morally ambiguous I don’t know if you are really accomplishing anything. Leaving things open for interpretation is something I almost always appreciate in a film, but here I feel things are left way too muddied to strongly form an opinion that the film clearly supports. What good is it to be a piece of work that can be interpreted both for or against something as serious as a possible war of choice that cost thousands of American lives and didn’t really accomplish anything?

I think if you view the film as this grand tragedy (which I did), with Kyle being a proxy for the American military complex itself, it stands as a pretty damn good movie. Kyle got into the military for patriotic reasons, the US got involved in Iraq for non-patriotic ones, but Kyle’s subsequent experience in the field depicted here is a compelling mirror to the US’ experience in the Middle East.

Early success leads Kyle to keep coming back for more even though everyone around him in his life is saying this is a bad idea. Kyle talks down against anyone who shows “weakness” or opposition to the war, bullying that idea with rha rha patriotism, a strategy Republicans still live by. The US pressed on and on in Iraq for years even after it became clear from many sources that there was no reason to be there if our goal was to get retribution for 9/11. Kyle becomes obsessed with one man the way some would say Bush was with Saddam Hussein, hell-bent on eliminating him at any cost. The film also uses the “Mission Accomplished” line eerily similar to Bush, with Kyle declaring victory without actually being able to see the victory while the battle is still a mess around him with a war clearly not won either. Kyle’s relationship with veterans even can be loosely paralleled as he honors their sacrifice though doesn’t do anything to truly help them. That isn’t a slap at Kyle, I’m sure he brought plenty of peace of mind to many veterans, but taking them out to shoot a gun isn’t going to help their physical health. Kind and supportive words isn’t going to help physically heal these veterans, yet it is what it feels like our government is only giving them after sending them to fight needless war. Viewing Kyle as an expert sniper who is blind to the world around him is a compelling and appropriate allegory of the US in American Sniper, and from that angle I really enjoyed the film. But part of me still wonders if that was truly the intention behind the film.

Eastwood is a well known face of the conservative side of this country, but his previous war films come across as strongly anti-war. This is probably his best film since Letters from Iwo Jima, and that film is clearly not interested in glorifying war. I don’t think he is in American Sniper either, but why can’t I shake that feeling that this film’s undercurrent might be full of pro-war jingoistic intentions? I wonder how I would feel about this if it was directed by almost any other director.

Lauren: [Picks lower jaw off floor] Yeah I didn’t see any of that. I understand what you’re saying and it all makes sense, but if that’s the case then I like the movie even less because they purposefully threw Kyle under the bus in the process. Unless he really was how they present him to be.

If the film wants to be an allegory for America and the war then it’s a mistake to put a real name to it. That way I, as well as people like me who are expecting to see and get invested in the true story of one man, might be more willing to see past how he is presented and pick up on something more. I come to this more emotionally reactive, as opposed to coming in with a strong foundation of knowledge on the war and the world.  Therefore all I see is him ignoring the cries of his wife in a way that makes him completely unsympathetic, I see him showing no regret for missing the early years of the lives of his kids, I see him putting revenge above his family, ignoring orders that go against his personal objective of vengeance. And then he almost kills a dog!  If it wasn’t for hints of turmoil under the surface, I would be calling him a monster by now.

Speaking of, the one other major complaint I have is how little focus is put on PTSD. The movie doesn’t have to be all about this, and it’s pretty much the undercurrent of all the scenes of Kyle at home, but it doesn’t do anything to shed light on this in a way that allows us to better understand why Kyle acts the way he does. It’s actually downplayed because at the end of the day all Kyle needs was to shoot some guns with other veterans and all of that emotion that finally rushed to the surface after he could see past his mission is a thing of the past. He’s all better. He’s back to being the same happy and caring man willing to make jokes that involve pointing real guns at his wife. Yay jovially playing with weapons! That’s not at all incredibly stupid or dangerous!  And I seriously doubt that’s a truthful representation of the recovery process for most veterans also dealing with this when they come home.

Zac: Funny you should mention the PTSD, apparently Kyle really struggled with it post-war, and the film does sort of glide over it by basically just acknowledging it. In fact, his post-war life was apparently shaded by more than a few lies, and in reality Kyle says he never even saw Mustafa, let alone killed him as the film depicts (Check out Amy Nicholson’s review for more of that). I think in the light of these post-screening discoveries, this apparently fictionalized story is even more head-scratchingly trying too hard to be a depiction of a real life man. The man’s kill record is fairly solid, I’m sure, so his exploits on the field of battle stand on their own, and I get the need to have a dramatic conclusion to your film, but the entire dramatic through line of the film (the years long sniper battle) is invented. So why not just be an inspired by story? I get every movie about real people plays fast and loose with facts sometimes (see Foxcatcher this year), but the changes need to be in service to the story you’re telling, and the changes here seem to be doing nothing but building a myth. So many mixed feelings about what to take away from this thing.

I think the last angle you can look at that helps me define the angle in which I view the film is that I don’t think Kyle would like the way he is appreciated here. After reading about some of his grandiose post-war lies in his book, the man seems to have wanted to buff up his image to the world and I don’t think Bradley Cooper’s Kyle is a very flattering representation beyond Kyle’s excellence on the battlefield; which certainly is something. Kyle is portrayed rather dense, wounded and humble in the film and I would be really curious of his response to that portrayal.

Lauren: I don’t know what to think anymore. The more I read about it, the dirtier I feel and the less I like the movie. It really isn’t about Chris Kyle, is it? It is inspired by, sure, but why lead audiences to believe anything else? What was the point? Just go all Hurt Locker and be done with it.

Zac: I feel you. Viewing the movie from the angle I mentioned earlier, I think it is a pretty good movie, but there is so much grey area that I don’t know if I will ever really know how to feel about this film.

To the film’s credit, though, I don’t remember it ever flashing a “Based on a True Story” title card, and in that regard the film doesn’t really become a true story till the final scene and the credits roll.

Still, I can say a few positive notes for potential viewers. Bradley Cooper is really good, as usual. Sienna Miller makes the most of a role that could have been very naggy. And the military set pieces are pretty tense on top of all that. That said, a bit more visual flair with the sniper elements and a more fleshed out home life for Kyle could have really taken American Sniper up a notch.

See the movie as fiction and it is a lot easier to enjoy. But you might want to avoid some of Kyle’s late life foibles if you don’t want to become further conflicted.