Sunday, April 17, 2016

Happiness is a Warm Gun

Film: American Sniper
Format: HBO Go on rockin’ flatscreen.

I’ve avoided watching American Sniper specifically because I haven’t been interested in it. I’ve said before that I grew up on war films and that’s true to a large extent; many of my formative films centered on World War II. I still have a historical interest in World War II because in many ways I think it is the last noble war in which the United States was involved. More modern wars interest me less, and our involvement in conflicts in the Middle East over the last couple of decades despite any political rhetoric have seemed to me to be more morally dubious. So, suspecting that American Sniper could well be jingoism disguised as military drama, I’ve stayed away.

I have to get to it eventually, though, and figured today when I’m alone at home for the bulk of the day would be a good opportunity. That and it’s disappearing from HBO at the end of the month, so it was a chance to take out a film that I would otherwise have to find in a library or get on disc. These considerations are important when it comes to pursuing a large list of films.

American Sniper is the story of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), a cowboy turned Navy SEAL when he sees footage of the 1998 bombings in Tanzania and Kenya. A couple of years later, 9/11 happens and Kyle is deployed, with word of his deployment coming on the day of his marriage to Taya (Sienna Miller), whom he met following his training. Kyle’s penchant as a marksman earns him a job as a sniper guarding American troops on the streets. Soon enough Chris Kyle earns the nickname “The Legend” for being deadly behind the trigger, racking up a staggering amount of confirmed kills.

A great deal of the film concerns a sort of rivalry between Chris Kyle and an Iraqi sniper called Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), an Olympic medalist in shooting. Kyle has several run-ins with Mustafa, including a firefight involving a high-ranking al Qaeda leader called the Butcher (Mido Hamada). Kyle’s battle against Mustafa becomes personal when the Iraqi sniper kills several of Kyle’s friends.

The parts of the film that don’t deal with Chris Kyle’s time in Iraq instead focus on his home life between his four tours of duty. Kyle seems to be obsessed with the idea that he is needed to keep the American troops protected, and even when he is home, he is unable to truly be at home. This is why he continues to sign up for tours of duty, almost as if he needs to take down Mustafa in order to have closure with the entire war.

I can’t say I liked American Sniper. Much of that is that while watching the film, I couldn’t help but think that in virtually every other possible situation, Chris Kyle’s skill with a sniper rifle would make him a monster. I don’t tend to make a lot of connections back to Quentin Tarantino, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Inglourious Basterds while watching. Specifically, I thought of the propaganda film about the German sniper contained within the film. For the Nazis, the sniper was a hero; for everyone else, he is a cold-blooded killer (and no, I’m not calling Chris Kyle a Nazi). The bigger connection was Enemy at the Gates, another film involving rival snipers. In this case, the two men are heroes to their own sides and the epitome of evil to the other. On a base level, is Chris Kyle any different than Mustafa? For a nationalistic American, Chris Kyle is a hero attempting to put down a rampant killer. Wouldn’t the Iraqis think the reverse of these two men?

This really is a serious issue for me. I think of war as a last resort, as something that should only happen when every other possible avenue of resolving a situation has been explored unsuccessfully. I understand the importance of the military and even the necessity of the military. I know people who have served and my daughter has a good friend who is currently deployed. I have trouble glorifying it, though. I think director Clint Eastwood has tried not to glorify the conflict and has done everything he can to show Chris Kyle as a conflicted person.

Is Chris Kyle a hero? I don’t know. I do know that I didn’t like this film that much. It may well be that I didn’t like this not because of the film itself but because of a great deal of the reaction to it. There is some hero making going on here, even if that hero making comes entirely from the more nationalistic segment of the audience. And really, that element of American society is the target audience. Eastwood does a solid job of bringing in ideas of the cost of the war. Chris Kyle’s inability to switch off and the psychological problems experienced by him and others are not pushed aside here. This, at least for me, is what ultimately saves the movie and makes it worth watching.

I probably won’t watch American Sniper again, though.

Why to watch American Sniper: A modern war story that feels relevant.
Why not to watch: In virtually every other context, Chris Kyle is a terrible human being instead of a hero.


  1. I liked this movie. I separated myself from the moral question by the "it's war" rationale - rightly or wrongly.

    For me the best part was his internal conflict, especially when he was home. You can tell even when he's there his mind is thousands of miles away wondering how many men are dying because he's not there to protect them.

    And I didn't know his real story, so the ending was a surprise and was emotional for me.

    1. I think I might be unable to separate things with this film. I do think it's one worth seeing. Admittedly, I think my reaction to it may well be more of a reaction to how quickly it was embraced by some political ideologies as the creation of a hero.

  2. "Chris Kyle is a terrible human being instead of a hero."

    I think he evolved into a hero by the end of the film to both his family and those he was trying to help beyond the battlefield. It's just a shame that that portion of his life in which he was healing his family, himself, and countless others still suffering from the horrors of war was taken away by one of those suffering though the hell that he was trying to help heal.

    1. I think you're probably right, and that's something that works in the film. A lot of how this film needs to be taken is as a matter of perspective. I won't be someone who condemns Chris Kyle as a monster, and in fact had I the same skill set, I won't say that I wouldn't act in the same way--which is why the initial part of that sentence is there above.

      There are a lot of moral issues at work here and I won't pretend that I've ferreted them all out or that my position is the most ethically sound, and I think the film works on that level, too.