Let’s celebrate the person who returned to help, not the mythologized character conscripted for political purposes
by MATTHEW GAULT
I knew this would happen.
Back in 2014, Bradley Cooper played Chris Kyle in the Oscar nominated film American Sniper and became a conservative hero. Two years later he attended the Democratic National Convention and American Sniper fans lost their shit on Twitter.
Bradley Cooper is promoting Hillary? Too bad. He's dead to me now.pic.twitter.com/gXJ4ahO8YK
Cooper responded, telling James Corden that the backlash surprised him. He was eager to see Pres. Barack Obama speak, and told the crowd he thought he’d been a great president.
I think American Sniper is the best film ever made to date about the war in Iraq. Clint Eastwood is the best living American director to tackle war. His films are morally complicated, beautiful and staunchly anti-war. But that’s not how many of his fans, particularly those of American Sniper see it.
When I caught an early screening of the film back in 2014 in a theater outside Dallas, Kyle fans packed the house. Dozens of men and women wore T-shirts depicting Kyle’s Punisher-style skull emblem. An excited moviegoer told me all about owning a McMillan TAC-338 sniper rifle — just like Kyle.
Then the movie began, and Kyle shoots a child in the street.
That’s the first scene of the film — the hero literally kills a child. The kid is carrying a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, true, but that doesn’t negate the fact that the supposed military uber-hero killed him. Kyle views it as a hard decision he made in a world where evil invaded the life of one unlucky Iraqi child.
The rest of the film, and characters in it, question this assessment.
People in my showing loved the movie, and — not surprisingly — outlets on both sides of the American political spectrum began to misunderstand it. Breitbart called it “a patriotic, pro-war on terror masterpiece.” Rolling Stone said it was too dumb to criticize.
American Sniper earned six Oscar nominations and took home only one. Kyle fans didn’t take it well. Twitter and Facebook exploded with excoriations of the liberal media and liberal-er Hollywood. Conservative pundit Sean Hannity called the Academy Awards “clueless.”
But Americans have wrongly mythologized Kyle, elevating a complicated human soldier full of flaws, contradictions and darkness into an unimpeachable hero or a demon, depending on which side they take.
For the die-hard Kyle fans, American Sniper is about the sacrifices a man makes to fight a good war and the moral ambiguities his enemies thrust upon him during combat. For Kyle critics, the film is a hagiography of a murderer set during a war many Americans wish we’d never started.
They’re both wrong. American Sniper is a morally complicated film about the psychological impact that modern war has on a patriotic soldier. Kyle, the character, is pro-war and the film does glamorize his achievements.
But Eastwood takes pains to contrast those glories with painful scenes of Kyle coming home to a country he doesn’t understand, and a family he has trouble connecting to. It’s an anti-war film and obviously, staunchly so.
Eastwood’s genius is that he crafted a movie that achieves its anti-war message without becoming preachy or overbearing. Unfortunately, that subtlety blew past viewers in their rush to reinforce their preconceived notions about a man who, by all accounts, killed a lot of people.
For me, it’s hard to imagine a film that opens with the death of a child, even one cast as an enemy combatant, as anything but anti-war.
Fortunately, Eastwood talked to students at the Loyola Marymount University School of Film and Television in 2015 and made his feelings on the film’s message crystal clear. The interviewer asked Eastwood if he felt American Sniper glorifies war.
“No I don’t think it glorifies,” he said before switching track. “I think it glorifies it, sure. I mean in the first sequence he shoots down … ” he trailed off, choosing his words carefully.
“Yeah, the sniping part is. But you know then eventually as that scene indicates that he’s getting … you can see it’s starting to tell on him, and later on when he visits a psychiatrist and has to talk to him, and the psychiatrist says did you do anything along the way over there that you felt you shouldn’t have? And you could tell by the look on his face that yeah, he’s got some regrets in there.”
My favorite part of this exchange is that Eastwood is so flabbergasted that anyone would think a movie opening with the death of a child is anything but anti-war.
“I think it’s nice for veterans, because it shows what they go through, and that life — and the wives and families of veterans. It has a great indication of the stresses they are under. And I think that all adds up to kind of an anti-war [message].”
American Sniper is full of scenes that drive home that message. One takes place in Iraq when Kyle runs into his younger brother. Chris embraces the younger Kyle, worrying over the straps on his helmet with smiles and love.
Younger brother Jeff grimaces and looks away. He seems depressed and Chris asks him what’s wrong. “I’m just tired man,” he says.
“I’m proud of you,” Chris says. “Dad is too. Dad’s proud of you.”
“Fuck this place,” Jeff mutters under his breath. He backs away from Chris and says it louder. “Fuck this place,” he almost screams. The camera cuts to Chris, who looks confused, as if he can’t believe someone so close to him would feel that way.
Just two scenes later, Kyle is talking with one of his fellow soldiers about the war. “I just want to believe in what we’re doing here,” the other soldier tells a confused Kyle.
The famed sniper tells him that they’re battling evil. “There’s evil everywhere,” his fellow soldier replies.
Kyle feeds him a line about fighting them over there so they don’t have to fight them back home. The soldier backs off but he’s clearly unconvinced.
In the film, Kyle struggles to reconcile his personal quest against the forces of evil with civilian life. His wife anchors him reality, but only barely. After the funeral of a fellow soldier, Kyle and his wife bicker in a car on the ride home.
Eastwood shot the scene as if it were war footage, highlighting Kyle’s inability to leave Iraq behind.
“The biggest anti-war statement any film can make is to show the fact of what [war] does to the family and the people who have to go back into civilian life like Chris Kyle did,” Eastwood said during a Producers Guild breakfast.
And yeah, the movie does glorify the action of war, but it does so to contrast the excitement of Kyle’s life in Iraq with his personal battles at home. “I’ve done war movies because they’re always loaded with drama and conflict,” Eastwood explained when talking to the Loyola students.
“But as far as actual participation … it’s one of those things that should be done with a lot of thought, if it needs to be done. Self-protection is a very important thing for nations, but I just don’t like to see it. I was not a big fan of going to war in Iraq or Afghanistan … several practical reasons.
“Iraq, I know, was a different deal, because there was a lot of intelligence that told us that bad things could happen there … I tend to err on the side of less is best.”
Nearly two decades of perpetual war have done something to America which isn’t pretty, and we won’t understand the full ramifications of it for generations.
Our friends and neighbors call for the return of torture, advocate the destruction of Islamic State-held cities — civilians be damned — and cheer a film hero whose first act on screen is to kill a child.
And they’ve conscripted into their battles a beautiful movie about a patriotic American forced into awful situations by an unjustified war. Every character in the film slows Kyle down and asks him if he’s really doing the right thing, and if his actions are justified.
Kyle’s journey in American Sniper leads him through Hell to show him the importance of the civilian life he is defending, and how his actions almost tore that life apart. And his death occurred while trying to help a fellow veteran.
We should celebrate the guy who came home to help, not the soldier who stayed too long in the desert killing those he called “savages.”