From the sheer amount of controversy surrounding Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper,” it’s easy to forget the film is about a human being. This man, Chris Kyle, served four tours in Iraq and racked up more kills than any sniper in American history. “American Sniper” is at its best when it finds the humanity beyond that description.
The film opens with Kyle peering through a sniper rifle. He is relentlessly focused but unnerved: He is aiming at a woman and child, one furtively passing a grenade to the other. Kyle knows what he needs to do, but the film immediately flashes back to childhood. His father teaches him how to hunt and tells him that there are three kinds of people: sheep, wolves and sheepdogs. (I have no idea whether this conversation ever took place, but it is a perfect illustration of Kyle’s view of the world.)
We rejoin Kyle as an adult, spurred by the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings to join the Navy Seals. He later meets Taya, played with equal parts vulnerability and strength by Sienna Miller. She is skeptical about dating a Seal, then about letting her guard down, but eventually both fall hard for each other. After witnessing 9/11 on TV, the two marry and Taya becomes pregnant before Kyle is deployed to Iraq.
The bulk of “American Sniper” depicts the dehumanizing effects of war and Kyle’s struggle to reconnect emotionally with his family when he returns home. The scenes in Iraq evoke the confusion and uncertainty of American troops who were forced to treat most Iraqis as potential threats. Kyle and his men go house-to-house to reckon with civilians whom they are unable to protect, but whose help they need. To his men, Kyle is a legend, but to himself, he is simply doing what is asked of him to defend American lives. When he fails, it pains him more than any Iraqi death.
His lives at war and at home bleed together. During a phone call with his wife, he is attacked by insurgents and his wife, who has just told him the sex of their unborn child, is forced to listen. The film works best in how it shows Kyle completely unable to be a husband and father. Here, Bradley Cooper is quietly haunting and filled with futility. He has a job to do, and he’s not doing it. He can’t separate the lives he’s trying to save from the ones growing and suffering silently right in front of him. And when he does notice, there’s nothing he can do about it. Kyle watches behind the glass of a hospital nursery as his newborn daughter wails, and the one nurse on staff attends to another infant. The shot lingers on her, then on him yelling at the nurse to help. For all his prowess with a rifle, he is powerless.
Kyle finds his way back to his family when he quits the Navy Seals and begins helping recovering veterans. This part felt rushed; it spends no more than 10 to 15 minutes on Kyle’s last four years and skips past a lot of his growth as a husband and father. That being said, I don’t think it weakened the film all that much.
I do, however, need to address what I found troubling about “American Sniper.”
Many people accuse it of being dishonest. Is it? I don’t know. That gets to the question of whether filmmakers have a duty to portray an objective truth beyond the world experienced by their characters. Chris Kyle saw the Iraq War (and his service) in black and white terms. The film honors that to the point of virtually ignoring context: Kyle and his future wife witness the World Trade Center bombings on television, and after a short wedding scene, he deploys to Iraq. It would appear to the uninformed viewer that one somehow caused the other.
It doesn’t help that almost every Iraqi in the film tries to kill Kyle or other American soldiers. This may have been his experience, considering his job was to be on the alert for insurgents, but it doesn’t leave much room for reflection about why the United States was there and why hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians had to die. And for those with deeply anti-Muslim and anti-Arabic views, “American Sniper” will likely reinforce those beliefs.
I guess it isn’t really fair to shoulder “American Sniper” or any movie about the Iraq War with the burdens of political awareness and cultural sensitivity when it means to tell one story about one man’s reality. The problem is that there aren’t that many big movies about the Iraq War; as a nation, we aggressively avoided confronting its human costs, and that meant very few people wanted to see it depicted on film. I doubt it would have received as much controversy if several other high-profile, morally ambiguous Iraq War films had already been made. I wonder if “American Sniper” will open the door to such films. I’m skeptical.
But still, “American Sniper” manages to be challenging in ways that matter. With its shocking violence and even more shocking portrayal of recovering veterans, it forces us to question whether any war is worth the destruction it wreaks on our families. Perhaps that is enough.