I wanted to like this movie. But, in the end, I didn’t. I ultimately found it, and the story it attempts to chronicle, more troubling than either enlightening or uplifting.
American Sniper is a Clint Eastwood production, and Eastwood has proved himself adept behind the camera, perhaps more so than he is in front of it. He produced, directed and starred in the best war movie I’ve ever seen, Gran Torino, which masterfully explored the consequences of war, both beneficial and harmful, at the level of the individual, even as the movie is set several decades after the Korean War that the lead character fought in. American Sniper only superficially scratches the surface of the emotional toll that combat exacts.
Walt Kowalski, Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino, is unflinchingly portrayed as an old man grown angry, about a lot of things to be sure, but not the least at his having been forced to forsake his humanity in order to do what his country and the people he loved expected of him in the Korean War. War makes monsters of men, even when they heroically do what we ask of them. It’s obvious Kowalski spent his life trying to retrieve his humanity from the clutches of the venal society he risked his life to defend, and in the final scene proves his efforts have not been in vain.
Chris Kyle, whose memoir of his experiences in Iraq as a Navy Seal sniper provides the movie’s title and plot, is not so complicatedly portrayed, probably because Chris Kyle created something of a comic book superhero image for himself through his memoir. Comic book superheroes aren’t overly complicated. There is good and there is evil, and their job is to fight and defeat evil at every turn. The depiction of Chris Kyle in American Sniper reminded me a bit of John Wayne’s character in The Green Berets, a 1968 film released during the height of hostilities in Vietnam, and of the protests over it at home. American Sniper and The Green Berets seem more like those grainy black and white propaganda films denigrating Krauts or the Japs during World War Two that they’d show in theaters before screening the main attractions than actual efforts at revealing truths about war through cinematic artistry.
It’s not exactly clear what American Sniper is trying to be. If it is a movie about the life of a special forces sniper in combat, it fails, if for no other reason than it gets so many technical details wrong. Snipers don’t generally get to talk to the wives back home on a cell phone riding in the back of a HMMV on their way to combat, especially not when it is daylight in both Mesopotamia and the US at the same time. Snipers don’t initially acquire targets through their scopes; just as amateur astronomers don’t find stars by looking through a telescope and moving it about the night sky, targets are acquired outside the scope and then the scope is trained on them. Snipers can’t follow through their scope a motor scooter traversing their field of view from right to left while their rifles, to which their scopes are attached, remain stationary. Snipers don’t generally get to leave their posts on their own initiative to join a foot patrol in progress. Snipers, or anyone else who did so, would likely suffer severe reprimand.
If the movie is about the strain that war places on a combatant’s family, it fails there, too. Kyle’s wife knew what she was getting into when she married him. As he was often away (the real-life Kyle served four year-long tours in Iraq), the family had to make do without him. She seemed in the movie to manage things well. Personally, I think it unwise to try to have a family and be in the military. The occupations of father and service member are incongruent in the best of situations, and particularly so when the service member has a job like Navy Seal that requires a high degree of commitment. Conflicting priorities are always pulling the family apart. A Navy Seal who tries to raise a family while in the service will either let down his Seal Team brethren or his family. Though it is not portrayed in the movie, the real Chris Kyle left the Navy at his wife’s insistence. And that sounds about right. Something had to give.
The movie fails as a biopic of Chris Kyle’s life. There are too many ambiguities in Kyle’s real (not comic book hero) character and in his real life story that are not portrayed on screen. Kyle might have been an accurate shot with a sniper rifle, but seems to have had keen difficulties with accuracy so far as truth was concerned. According to Kyle, shortly after returning his last time from Iraq, he thwarted an attempted carjacking by killing two armed men who were trying to steal his truck. He claims that the police let him go because it was self-defense, but no record of any such incident at the time can be found by any law enforcement in the area southwest of Dallas where it was purported to have occurred. Three sheriffs of the three counties in the area all adamantly deny that any such shooting took place. Two dead bodies are splayed over a gas station parking lot, gunned down by an ex-Navy Seal, and there are no pictures, no stories, nothing with which they might be verified? Hard to fathom.
After the publication of his memoir, Kyle was successfully sued for defamation by Jesse Ventura, the former Minnesota governor and ex-Navy Seal. Kyle had concocted a story about a fist fight he’d gotten into with Ventura over their differing political views regarding the war. Truth is an absolute defense in a suit for defamation. But Kyle’s defense could not avail itself of the defense of truth because the story was a lie, or at least was according to a Minnesota jury. They awarded Ventura $1.8 million.
Then there’s the story, reported in several mainstream publications (The New Yorker, The D Magazine, The Washington Post, etc.), that Kyle told about leaving California where he was stationed (between deployments in Iraq) for New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, where he lay prone on the Superdome roof, shooting armed thugs looting the city in the aftermath of the storm. He supposedly had thirty kills from his perch on the dome. Yet there is nothing to verify his tale. All the Navy will say is that it didn’t send any Seals from California to New Orleans during the storm. Would it even be possible for someone to climb unnoticed to top of the Superdome at that time, given the multitudes of aircraft in the area at all times? It seems that what we mainly know about Chris Kyle is what he’s told us, and he’s been proved in a court of law and otherwise to not be such a reliable purveyor of truth. But the movie ignores it all, which is, in my book, a big fail.
There is really only one purpose which the movie might succeed at fulfilling. If the aim of Bradley Cooper, who bought the movie rights to the book shortly after its publication, and Clint Eastwood, who produced and directed the movie, was to create an addition to American mythology, it appears they have succeeded. The construction of the myth and legend of Chris Kyle is well underway as a result of the movie. In the movie, Kyle was referred to as “legend” by his fellow sailors and Marines, and not sarcastically. Anyone who’s been in the military should know better than to believe that platoon or squad members would ever so honor a comrade. It wouldn’t even be done on a football team. It doesn’t matter how talented a teammate or squad member may or may not be, everyone is treated equally shitty. If anyone acquires the moniker, ‘the legend’, rest assured, it will only be said ironically, with dripping sarcasm, not in the manner with which it was portrayed in the movie. And the thing is, Eastwood fully well knows this, but let them call him ‘legend’ anyway, and without irony.
A Twitter storm erupted after the movie’s widespread release over whether Kyle is a hero who should be honored and revered, or something of a bloodthirsty assassin with a callous disregard for the truth. It was hardly surprising to learn that country music singers were leading the ‘hero who should be honored and revered’ camp, while people like filmmaker Michael Moore were being excoriated for questioning whether Kyle’s actions as a sniper were less than honorable and just. Chris Kyle has quickly become a political Rorschach test. The white right, holding tightly to its guns and God, buys the idea that Chris Kyle is an untarnished hero who did amazing things solely and unselfishly because he loved his country and wanted to protect her. The white right will allow no questioning of the narrative. Belief or not in the mythological Chris Kyle now serves as a demarcation line between people who are wid’ America and her troops, and for freedom, apple pie and baseball and badasses like Kyle; and people who are agin America and her troops and are for weasely towel-headed sand niggers who worship Allah, and who would have killed a lot more Americans had Kyle not blasted so many of them to smithereens.
As for me, Chris Kyle is not a hero. Among other reasons, his life is more complicated than being simply heroic. He made have done some heroic things. I don’t really know. But I feel certain that he had a propensity for playing fast and loose with the truth, and what we mainly know about his heroics is what he’s told us.
I never personally knew any snipers in my time in service, but of the ones I knew about, I always figured they were a breed apart, and unlikely heroes. Kyle seemed to be one of the very few who could alchemize the leaden work of ambushing and killing people into a golden act of heroism. If a sniper does his job properly, nobody even knows he’s done it, not least the enemy, except for the ones directly affected by his long-range assassinations. It’s hard to see where much of anything except technical expertise is involved. Snipers defending the homeland are often considered to be heroes, and for good reason. They are fighting back against an invasion force in whatever subversive manner they can. A female sniper in the old Soviet Union, Lyudmila Pavlichenko, was credited with over 300 kills during the German occupation, and was deservedly lionized for her heroism. In Iraq, Kyle was part of the invasion and occupation force. His homeland was ten thousand miles and five thousand years away. It seems to me that assassination, rather than the heroic defense of an endangered homeland, is what he was about.
But it goes deeper than that for me. I don’t believe we should have been in Iraq to start with. I vociferously objected to my own deployment in late 1990 in the first Iraq War. I had not signed up to fight a country that presented no threat to the US. I had volunteered for the Army at the height of Cold War tensions (1985), but did not consider myself a mercenary. I signed up to help protect the US from the existential threat a Soviet Union bristling with nuclear and conventional arms presented, or anything else that threatened the US Constitution that I was sworn to protect and defend. Nobody could have anticipated fighting in Iraq at the time I volunteered. I got out as soon as I returned from the war, a few months after hostilities ended, because I knew there were no existential threats left, and wars like Iraq would be what the military would be doing for the rest of my career if I stayed. That was one of the few calls in my life that I got right.
Kyle, on the other hand, knowingly volunteered to kill Iraqis. He did four tours in Iraq. Nobody does four tours that doesn’t want to do four tours. The military certainly doesn’t require it. Kyle loved killing. He said as much in his book. People who love killing are perhaps necessary in society when it is faced with extinction by other nations, but such was not the case with America vis a vis Iraq. Iraq was the nation that faced extinction. There was a subplot in the movie about an Iraqi sniper that Kyle was trying to kill. It may have been a subtle anti-war jab from Eastwood, because he showed the two men as leading roughly parallel lives, down to each having a wife and a squalling baby. But from my perspective, the Iraqi sniper had the better ethical justification for what he was doing. He may have loved killing as much as Kyle, but he had a reason to kill that was thrust upon him by America’s invasion. Kyle sought out the killing, finding an outlet for his bloodlust by joining a military at war. That he also earned fame and fortune out of his bloodlust by making himself out to be some sort of mythological legend speaks to an ethic that seems rather frightening. That he was mainly successful at it speaks to a society that is despairingly gullible.
Eastwood could have done better with this tale. He could, for example, have ignored the image Kyle tried to claim for himself, and explored the ethical dynamics between Kyle and the enemy sniper. All it takes is one or two steps away from the rabid nationalism that Kyle represented to see that the Iraqi sniper and Kyle were more alike than different. He was no more of a ‘savage’ (in Kyle’s words) than Kyle was.
Alas, the next movie on Chris Kyle, and there will undoubtedly be others, will probably be as steeped in patriotism and wrapped in the flag as was this one. But a better next movie would explore how the legend of Chris Kyle was born—why people bought into it, knowing full well Kyle’s generous capacity and desire for embellishment or outright fabrication, and the reliance of the legend mainly upon what Kyle himself related.
It is a good thing for Chris Kyle’s mythology that he was shot and killed at a shooting range in February of 2012, heroically (apparently legitimately this time) trying to help a former Marine, Eddie Ray Routh, who it turns out was mentally ill*. Routh managed somehow to do what no Iraqi ever could, gunning down Chris Kyle, who was armed with his 1911 Colt pistol, ,and his civilian buddy, Chad Littlefield, who was also armed. Neither Kyle nor Littlefield appeared to have gotten off a shot. The legend of Chris Kyle is now secure. He can’t do or say anything else that might besmirch it.
There seems something of an inevitability to how Kyle’s life ended. Kyle had created this larger-than-life persona for himself, pretending to be practically superhuman in his capabilities. Eddie Ray Routh was a troubled veteran whose mother was at wit’s end to figure out how to help him. Having tried the VA psychiatrists and social workers to no avail, it’s no surprise that she’d gravitate to a guy like Kyle. Kyle’s superhero status led his life and Routh’s to tragically intersect. In the end, not only couldn’t Kyle save Routh, he couldn’t even save himself or his buddy.
*If you want to know more about who Chris Kyle really was, what he did and claimed to do, and who the person was who killed him, “In the Crosshairs” by Nicholas Schmidle in the June 3, 2013 issue of The New Yorker is a good source. It is well-written and researched, covering pretty much everything I’ve touched on here. The New Yorker article makes abundantly clear, without expressly saying as much, that Kyle’s killer was a deranged psychotic, who was probably crazy when he joined the Marine Corps. No matter what the psychiatrists and social welfare workers would have you believe, war doesn’t make a sane man crazy. It might tip someone teetering on the edge into insanity, but the insanity doesn’t bloom and grow without which the seed is planted genetically. PTSD is real, but so is schizophrenia. It doesn’t require serving in combat to manifest, but combat will certainly tend to help along those lines.