Spoiler Alert: In the post below, I disclose some of the details of the plot of American Sniper (2014). Most people already know how the story turns out, but for those few who may not, I offer this alert.
When I went to see American Sniper (2014) last week, the showing was sold out and the theater was packed. I have watched movies under such crowded conditions in the past and generally find them uncomfortable. Full movie theaters simply do not have the requisite “empty space.” Once the previews ended and the film began, I never thought about the crowded theater again. From what I could gather, the rest of the audience had the same experience. American Sniper enthralled us.
Bradley Cooper is superb as Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL sniper who saw himself as a “sheepdog,” protecting American troops from their enemies. (Familiar with his other, more comedic roles, it is not difficult to see why there is Oscar buzz surrounding his efforts.) As the movie ended with live footage from Kyle’s funeral procession, the audience drifted into a spontaneous silence. We exited the crowded theater in an extended, unplanned silence of honor and respect, but also laden with grief, and tinged with a bit of anger towards the troubled veteran who murdered Kyle even as Kyle sought to help him overcome PTSD.
A well-told tale with good cinematography, a compelling lead character, and enough romance to “keep it interesting,” Clint Eastwood succeeds once again in bringing a solidly entertaining movie to the Silver Screen. As a director, Eastwood has never shied away from films that tackle controversial social and ethical questions. Several such items surface in American Sniper. However, perhaps due to Eastwood’s sensitivity to the sentiments of the patriotic, Jacksonian Americans that make up his target audience, he does not engage these subjects with the aggressive bluntness of Million Dollar Baby (2004) or Grand Torino (2008).
On the surface, American Sniper celebrates the martial patriotism of what Walter Russell Mead terms the Jacksonian school of foreign policy, characterized by “a deeply embedded, widely spread populist and popular culture of honor, independence, courage, and military pride (Mead, Special Providence, 88).” Jacksonians are most likely to embrace an “America: Love it or Leave It” mentality, see the world in black and white (with American perpetually wearing the white hat), and almost always defend American action in the world. At spots, the film questions those values, problematizing the Jacksonian perspective by hinting at its oversimplified view of the world.
First, American Sniper raises questions about the thinness of American Civil religion, a religion in which the film version of Kyle participates. In one of the opening scenes, a young Chris Kyle slips a small, blue Bible from the church pew into his pocket as the pastor preaches. The Bible accompanies Chris through his childhood and into the military, making conspicuous appearances throughout the remainder of the film. Along with his rough-and-tumble Texas personality, his martial training, his shooting acumen, and his warm loyalty towards those for whom he cares, the Bible is a part of what defines Kyle. He carries it with him throughout the film. Later in the film, Kyle’s jaded friend and fellow SEAL Marc Lee asks him if he ever reads it. But he ignores the question, instead reciting the mantra of “God, Country, and Family.” In the film, the Bible is a deep part of who he is an american sniper but as a symbolic talisman representative of his devotion to American Civil Religion and not as Christian scripture. In that, the film version of Chris Kyle is no different than so many other Americans upon whom a veneer of Christianity devoid of its power has settled.
Second, the film raises questions about the Jacksonian tendency to portray good and evil in stark, even dehumanizing terms. Without a doubt, some characters in the film are deserving of such a portrayal. For instance, the actions of “The Butcher,” second-in-command to al-Zarqawi, justify such simplistic labelling. The atrocities committed by him in the film can find nothing close to justification, even using the most skilled casuistry. Mustafa, however, is another story. The Syrian shooter joined anti-Coalition forces in Iraq, troubling American forces by employing his considerable skill as a sniper. Soon he becomes Kyle’s nemesis, killing American soldiers from distance. A quiet character (I don’t think he speaks a single word in the film), Eastwood subtlety displays his humanity. One scene in particular shows Mustafa leaving his apartment in order to snipe approaching American soldiers. As he rushes out, robes flowing, we catch a glimpse of a picture of him on an Olympic podium, a Gold Medal around his neck. More importantly, we see his wife (?) holding a small infant as hustles out. The comparison is clear–just as Kyle has a wife and child, so does Mustafa. Both are husbands. Both are fathers. Both share these common human experiences. Eastwood does not plumb this line any further, but leaves it suggestive, perhaps afraid to challenge the assumptions of his audience more directly. I wish he had, for personally, I find it altogether too easy to label my enemies as evil–or at least bad–too often forgetting that they are image-bearers for whom I am commanded to pray (Matthew 5:43-48).