Taking Shots at American Sniper

AmSnipeMovieLet me start by saying that American Sniper is a good action movie. It is not necessarily a movie about the Iraq War, at least not in the way a movie like Platoon captured the essence of the Vietnam War. Instead, it simply looks at one man’s experience – that of US Navy SEAL sniper Chirs Kyle, upon whose autobiography it was based – in Iraq and back home.

Frankly, I’m a bit puzzled as to why the film has stirred so much controversy. It’s entertainment. And, as entertainment, it works quite well. But if you try to make it about more than that, as many clearly have, than I think you’ll find as much controversy as you would if you were to try to analyze most war films.

War Films
A few of war films aspire to offer insightful commentary on war itself, or a particular conflict. However, most simply use war as a backdrop for entertaining action. They don’t bother with a balanced portrayal, or even an accurate one. And even the most well-crafted war films often offer enough ammunition for both hawks and doves to lay claim to them.

Take Das Boot, for example. It’s been ages since I’ve seen it, but I’m not sure if I could make a definitive argument that it’s either pro-military or anti-war. Not that those two viewpoints are necessarily exclusive, but rather in terms of the hawks and the doves laying claim to them as supporting their particular political viewpoint.

Das Boot is a look at life aboard a German submarine during World War II, and the camaraderie found among men when the frailty of life is thrust in their face. Yes, we see the disillusionment of the officers with the war and their political leadership. But we also see plenty of action and excitement, the kind that even the recruitment office of the US Navy, one of the “enemies” in the film, must have been thrilled about: be all you can be…under the sea.

An even better comparison, and more relevant for our youthful viewers, might be the film Fury. Like Das Boot, it is a tale of the hardships of battle balanced with the bond that forms among those who must endure it. And it also has enough explosions to excite anyone who enjoys a modern action movie.

Das Boot, however, asks a lot of tough questions about war and how we wage it. Fury has a few scenes that glance at such issues, as when the tank commander tries to get his new driver to murder a prisoner of war, but for the most part it takes a more shallow look at war, like American Sniper does.

But before I get to that, I also want to mention Saving Private Ryan, which was widely praised when it was released. While that film does ask questions about what we must sacrifice in battle, its focus is really more about the lives of men in combat than it is about whether war is good or bad. In films such as these, and American Sniper certainly falls into this category, the question isn’t as much about the war – or war in general – but rather about how soldiers endure and survive it.

In the end, whether you see such portrayals, the soldier’s human struggle in combat, as pro-military or anti-war is really a question of individual perspective. Which, again, probably falls in line with your political perspective. If you think war is a noble and grand rite of passage, then you will see these films as wonderful – perhaps even inspirational – works of entertainment. And if you see war as a terrible, tragic thing that happens when politicians fail the people, then you will see these films as cautionary tales of the toll war takes on those forced to fight it.

Gunk In The Gears
That question of perspective may be why there’s such controversy surrounding American Sniper. If you overlook the creative license taken by the filmmakers and the questionable honesty of storyteller Chris Kyle, the film’s biggest flaw is that it does a shoddy job of showing the true suffering a soldier must endure – at least compared to the other films cited here. The main character doesn’t show much emotion. In fact, Chris Kyle comes across as more of a plastic GI Joe doll than an actual human being under fire.

There are, however, two possible explanations for this. The first is that the story is based on the character’s autobiography, and Kyle clearly wanted to present himself as an infallible hero. Rather ironically, though, his unwillingness to show any weakness inadvertently reveals a certain lack of courage on his part, which is arguably the greatest weakness of all.

The film does at least try to show the hardships of war, but only through the suffering of others in the film – never Kyle himself. His character is clearly off-limits, except for a few brief moments of anguish silently conveyed through the well-delivered facial expressions of Bradley Cooper, the actor who portrayed him.

In an effort to paint himself as this infallible hero, a perfect warrior, Kyle ends up looking more like a cliche than an actual soldier. Perhaps he and the filmmakers should have given the audience a little more credit. If they want us to believe that Kyle is a real hero, then he first must be a real person – as opposed to the caricature they presented, which looks more like something out of a comic book than a combat tour.

That brings me to the second possible explanation for the character’s lack of depth, which is the types of action movies consistently making big money these days. Comic book superhero movies have been as close as Hollywood gets to a sure thing. And, if you take away the asterisked claims of it being a true story, that’s what American Sniper appears to be.

In fairness, though, the fictional comic book character Tony Stark from Iron Man is far more complex and believable than the portrayal of Chris Kyle in American Sniper. But that goes back to Kyle’s highly selective self-portrayal – combined with the filmmakers unwillingness to paint him in anything but the most favorable light. Stark is a fictional character, whereas Kyle has a family and a legacy to protect.

AmSnipeBookSanitized Shooting
Fundamentally, American Sniper tells a sanitized tale of an exceptional soldier. I say sanitized because the story is self-reported, based on Kyle’s book about his experience as a sniper in Iraq. And as we’ve learned from the fallout from that book, some of his claims have proven to be flat-out, shameless lies.

For example, Kyle never shot civilian “looters” from a sniper’s nest in New Orleans during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. And why he would even make such a horrendous claim, and brag about it, does more damage to his character than anything any critic could ever conjure up about this film.

Beyond the questions raised by the author’s own lack of credibility, one must also consider the creative license taken by those who made the film. This film – like any film – is first and foremost a business venture, so those who made it were prudent to offer up such a sanitized version to maximize box office success.

Yes, they could have dug deeper, and taken more risks, but does playing it safe make it any less entertaining? I don’t think it necessarily does. Less compelling, maybe, and clearly less important in a cultural sense, but not really any less entertaining. As we have learned, time and again, action movies don’t need to be believable to be entertaining.

And beyond the safety zone of Hollywood’s formulaic comic book superheroes, one must also consider the McCarthy-like persecution of anyone who dares to question our government and military in this current political climate. With that in mind, it’s hard to fault the filmmakers for avoiding any flaws Chris Kyle may have had (and clearly he had many, as we all do) while dodging the dodgier questions of the war’s morality and effectiveness. Besides, they also had to appease Kyle’s family, without whom they wouldn’t have been able to make the movie.

Self-Inflicted Wounds
What you won’t see in the film is the darker side of Chris Kyle. For example, in his book he brags about trying to run down Iraqi civilians with a car, something he did for what he described as “cheap thrills” – noting that their screaming and running for their lives made him “double over”‘ with laughter.

He also took pride in stealing things from the homes of everyday Iraqis, in clear violation of orders. Worse yet, despite feeling free to steal what little belongings these people have, especially since they had been living in a war zone for nearly a decade, he openly mocked their poverty.

I have no qualms about a sniper killing more than 160 combatants in battle. But I do have trouble with anyone, especially someone who claims to be a good Christian, taking advantage of those less fortunate simply because they can or – worse yet – because they thinks its funny to see others suffer.

It’s important to remember that our soldiers are real people. Just because someone puts on a uniform and serves their country doesn’t necessarily make them a hero. Like athletes and business executives, success in one’s chosen profession is only part of the equation. Sometimes even the most successful people are still assholes.

BYOOLThe Big Miss
For me, the biggest flaw is that this film could have been culturally significant. It could have made a real difference. And, flaws and all, Kyle’s story could have carried on his mission. It could have had a far greater impact on the American soldiers – the surviving vets – he clearly valued so dearly.

Had the film dug deeper into Kyle’s demons, and his admirable effort to help other veterans with their struggles, American Sniper could have made a significant impact by bringing the issue of veteran’s rights and treatment into the national spotlight. Instead, it hides behind a formulaic portrayal of comic book character in combat, albeit a very entertaining one at that.

Sadly, the conservatives who see this film as some sort of justification for the Iraq debacle (and the policies that surround it) are the same people who, in their blind pursuit of smaller government, have hung veterans – like Kyle, and the vet who tragically took his life – out to dry. Supporting our troops has become synonymous with not criticizing wartime leadership and policies, when it should really mean being far more judicious about when and where we send our soldiers as well as how well we care for them during and after their service.

These hawks were eager to send our soldiers off to war, but they weren’t – and still aren’t – willing to pay for it. It’s a bit late to invest in things like properly armored vehicles, but it’s a shame that we still aren’t providing our veterans with the service and support they need when they return home.

I understand how the short-sighted and self-interested politicians can easily rationalize such actions. They get millions in campaign donations from the companies that profit from the machines of war, while all that these veterans can really offer them are votes – and votes that, especially if they happen to be a Republican politician, they’d likely get anyway. But I don’t understand how so many of those voters, especially those who claim to admire and respect Chris Kyle, can be so eager to support what he did on the battlefield yet so quick to ignore what he was trying to do on the homefront.

American Sniper could have easily championed the pressing issue of veterans rights, an issue which Kyle himself ended up championing. It could have been The Best Years of Our Lives for the 21st century. And if the filmmakers had shown similar courage to do so, then the film would have served as a far more fitting legacy for the man, ensuring that Chris Kyle could still be fighting to save his fellow soldiers.