God, Family, Country… Right? American Sniper’s Troubling Anti-War Truth

God, Family, Country… Right? American Sniper’s Troubling Anti-War Truth February 10, 2015

American SniperSo, I avoided seeing American Sniper for a few weeks because the highly politicized debate about it was so intense. I’d been given a very strong impression from certain ugly responses to the movie that it was a celebration of heroism in the Iraq War; that it glorified the killing of Iraqis; that it depicted the Iraq war as another case of Americans saving the world; and that it failed to question why in the world we went there in the first place.

Well, I was greatly relieved to find out that the film isn’t like that at all. American Sniper is — like Unforgiven, like Million Dollar Baby — a film about the damage that the exercise of violence does to muscles of our minds and hearts, however honorable our intentions in exercising it.

In that sense, it’s a Clint Eastwood movie through and through. And a pretty good one.

What troubled me most was not the movie itself, but that so many people could watch this movie and feel exhilaration at the violence, and that they could respond in a way that demonstrates they missed so much of what the movie was showing them.

It’s the equivalent of watching a movie about the devastating effects of concussions on the brains and bodies of football players and running out to say “I’ve decided that I want a career in the NFL!”

To react that way — to celebrate the Chris Kyle of American Sniper as a role model and hero — is to minimize care and compassion for Kyle’s wife and his children. It is to join him in blaming the death of a fellow soldier on the mere fact of carrying difficult questions about what defines a “just war” — questions that are the sign of a healthy conscience. It is to hold up PTSD as a condition to be desired and even celebrated.

My whole Sunday-night moviegoing experience was surreal. This movie exists to encourage viewers to consider what we require of our soldiers in misguided and ethically compromising war efforts, to cause us to question what a lifelong exercise of heavy artillery is likely to do to our perception of the world. And yet it was preceded by six film trailers designed to thrill us with the glamorous spectacle of heroes wielding guns, firing guns, and aiming guns at the camera.

On my way out of the theater, I passed five brightly lit posters for coming attractions that displayed their main characters holding up guns.

I feel like I’ve been taking crazy pills.

We have met the enemy, and he is us.

Making all of this so much worse… an audibly uncomfortable 4-year-old boy was in the seat behind me through the movie. And as soon as the movie wrapped up coverage of Kyle’s war tours — as soon as he came home to learn to live with his family again — that father led his little boy out of the theater.

God, have mercy on us.

As I’m pressed for time this week, I am gratefully handing over the rest of this commentary on American Sniper to Brian McLain, who has given me permission to share his Letterboxd post on the film.

Thinking back over Clint Eastwood’s filmmaking career — particularly the later years — there has been a reoccurring theme of fathers abandoning their children. A Perfect World, Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby, and even Gran Torino all feature this theme prominently. American Sniper may be his strongest indictment yet.

As of this date (January 31, 2014) American Sniper has been destroying the box office. People are flocking to the theater to see it three and four times. While it’s not surprising that a film about war would have it’s supporters and detractors, American Sniper has practically become a touchstone for defining progressive and conservative. Those on the Right are touting this film as a patriotic masterpiece; the ultimate hero biopic. Those on the Left are rebuking Eastwood and those on the Right for blatant jingoism and glorifying killing. For the life of me, I can’t understand how either side got there after watching this film.

American Sniper is an anti-war film. Eastwood has said so himself: “The biggest anti-war statement any film” can make is to show “the fact of what [war] does to the family…” Eastwood does this by pitting Kyle’s real family — his wife and children — against his false family — the military. Some may bristle at my use of “false family,” but I would argue that this is what Eastwood is attempting to say in his film (as well as in his previous war films). Aside from an early childhood scene around the dinner table, every meal that Kyle shares is with his military family. When Kyle returns to Iraq for his second tour of duty, he’s immediately greeted with a “Welcome Home!” These men are his brothers and, in fact, they are the one’s that get his time — emotional and physical. Later in the film, Kyle’s wife tells him that he is a stranger to their home. He truly is. Many watch this and consider this a necessary sacrifice. Eastwood disagrees.

When watching a film, especially a biopic or historical event piece, it’s important to pay attention to the events that the director chooses to portray. Often, the biopic is simply a checklist of the important events that happened in the subject’s life, from birth to death. Eastwood, however, spends the bulk of the film following Kyle in Iraq, countered briefly with his time back home between tours. We’re given a few moments in Kyle’s early life that serve two functions: they show the events that led toward Kyle becoming a sniper in Iraq, and they serve as signposts for the viewer to see Eastwood’s thesis, so to speak.

For instance, early in Kyle’s life, his father tells him he has the gift of aggression and praises Kyle for beating up his little brother’s bully. Right away the metaphors are flying and as if to emphasize this, Eastwood gives a rather overly dramatic view of schoolyard violence (foreboding the extreme violence we see during the war scenes), as Kyle essentially caves in the other boys face — Eastwood wants us to know that he will not be glorifying the aggressor in this film. The next scene is Kyle as an aimless adult. He and his brother live for drinking, sex, and the rodeo. Prompted by an event on the news that shows a deadly embassy attack, Kyle joins the SEAL program. Now, the events in Kyle’s real life that led up to his military career did not unfold in this manner, but I think that Eastwood is using Kyle’s life as a template for many of the young men that join the military — aimless, unsure about the future, not interested in college, etc… (of course this is a broad generalization and does not apply to everyone). Immediately we see the military taking the aimless Kyle and molding him into a warrior. Well, “molding” is probably not the right term to use for this. We only spend a couple of minutes here, but it’s important to understand what Eastwood shows us. While I’m sure that SEAL training encompasses a variety of physical and mental training exercises, we’re basically shown one — the SEAL version of waterboarding. As the instructors hurl insults and abuse at the trainees, they blast their faces with powerful water hoses. This imagery will also come back later as we watch Kyle and his men invade a home and inflict abuse on an innocent family.

We then get the meet-cute, courtship and marriage of Kyle and his wife Taya. Again, it’s important to see what Eastwood fills these scenes with. Throughout these few minutes, we get a number of important questions by Taya: “Does it make a difference?” “Why do you do it?” How will you feel when there’s a real person on the end of that gun?” Every reply by Kyle is clichéd: “I love my country.” “I trust my training.” At one point Taya asks “Do you really think you’re protecting us?” Kyle: “Yes, if we don’t stop them over there, they’ll come over here.” Taya: “Really?” This will not be the last time this question is asked. Interestingly, Eastwood frames their marriage with gun imagery. Their courtship begins with Kyle’s marksmanship winning her a giant stuffed bear at a carnival. The last scene we see shows Kyle playfully pointing a gun at his wife. The false family — whether truly or symbolically — is always encroaching on the real family. Even their wedding scene (the bride’s happy moment) is filled with cheers — not for their marriage, but for the news that they’ve been deployed to Iraq.

Much like Kyle’s pre-war life, it’s important to pay attention to the war-time moments that Eastwood shows us on screen. Kyle’s first kill is a child. Again, this is not accurate to Kyle’s real life – he never actually killed a child — but similarly to the lingering shot of a drone later in the film, it serves as a reminder of the type of war being fought. Additionally, it’s also important to recognize the moments that Eastwood does not include. There is no conclusion to the war. Despite the timeline of the film going up to 2014, we don’t get the announcement of the troops coming home, the capture and death of Saddam Hussein, or the death of Osama Bin Laden. The closest we get is the death of a rival sniper, which is conveniently summed up with the phrase “mission accomplished.” Ring any bells?

Other moments that are important to mention: The frequent use of the word “savages.” Early on this is used to specifically refer to the Taliban. Later, it becomes a catch-all for Iraqis in general. It’s also important to recognize how Eastwood frames the brutality in the film. As I’ve already mentioned, the deaths are not your typical Hollywood deaths — they’re meant to convey realism, that even the death of an evil terrorist is weighty. Related to this, when we do see moments of extreme evil from members of the Taliban, the events that lead to this evil are a direct result of American involvement, or American miscalculations. Perhaps the toughest scene in the film — at least for me — involving the execution of an innocent man and his young son, is a direct result of Kyle going against orders. Later, when one of Kyle’s closest comrades — Marc, a fellow SEAL team member — begins questioning their role in Iraq, he asks Kyle if he thinks it’s worth it (them being in Iraq). Much like his response to Taya, Kyle answers with something like “of course, you don’t want these savages coming into San Diego, do you?” Marc simply stares at Kyle for a few seconds, as if in disbelief, before saying “OK, let’s go kill them.”

Many critics have accused the film of lying, pointing out that Eastwood leaves out many important details from Kyle’s life, or embellishing other parts, in order to make Kyle appear more heroic. They criticize the ending, accusing Eastwood of ignoring some of Kyle’s documented lies and outrageous proclamations. There may be a number of reasons for this, but my guess is that the reason Eastwood does this is because American Sniper is not primarily a biopic of Chris Kyle. It’s a film about war in which Kyle serves as the ideal model of the American warrior. In Kyle we have the all-American everyman who offers himself for his country and allows the military to shape him into a noble warrior. Eastwood, though, pulls back the rug and shows us the dirt that lies beneath. It’s pretty filthy and when we ask “who did this?“ Eastwood points the finger right at us. While Eastwood is critical of our military, their foreign policy and their priorities concerning family, he never casts the soldiers in an evil light. He goes to great lengths to show how they are manipulated and programmed to make the choices they make. According to the writer of the film, Jason Hall, the ending wraps up Kyle’s life in a positive light because of his sympathy for the soldier and his family. After Kyle’s death, Taya told Hall that he needed to tell the truth, but to also remember that their children didn’t know their father and that this film would play a big part in how they perceive him. Eastwood, I believe, is comfortable with such a neat ending because he’s not interested in criticizing the actions of Kyle. Instead, he directs the criticism toward our culture — a culture in which we praise men who abandon their families for another one. A culture that gushes over youtube videos of little girls breaking down when they see their daddies after a years absence, when little girls should never be placed in that position to begin with. A culture that continues to believe that sending our husbands, wives, mothers and fathers overseas is necessary for our safety. A culture that revels in the destruction of life — whether it be just or unjust. A lot of ink is spilled — especially by the conservatives — rightly critiquing the loss of fatherhood in our inner cities. Yet these same critics are quick to applaud the loss of fatherhood in this other arena. That’s hypocrisy. I believe Eastwood wants us — the viewer — to ask ourselves some tough questions.

Perhaps the movie is best summed up in a scene that appears about 3/4 toward the end of the film, during Kyle’s third tour of duty. Marc asks Kyle whether his New Testament bible is bullet proof. Kyle replies “You mean the one I keep in my chest pocket?” and Marc says “Yeah. I never see you open it, so I just assumed…” After a moments pause, Kyle sheepishly replies, as if asking his own question, ”Yeah, well, 1) God 2) Country 3) Family… Right?”


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  • Brian McLain

    I’m by no means an experienced critic – I just love film, love thinking about it, and love discussing it. I say that because now that I’ve had a month or so to think about the movie some more, read other critiques, listen to tons of podcasts and – much to my chagrin – defend my review to angry responders (I don’t know how you do it!), there are certainly some things I wish I would have brought up to bolster my view. One in particular is the fake baby – I can’t believe I forgot to mention it in my review! Anyways, I added the following addendum to my Letterboxd review and figured I’d post it here for anyone interested:

    I wish I would have said something about the fake baby. Actually,
    looking back, there are quite a few moments that I left out of my review
    that would have bolstered my interpretation of the film, but after
    listening to many podcast reviews and reading a number of critics, the
    baby thing is quite popular. Basically, there are two interpretations:
    either 1) Eastwood didn’t care that much about what was happening on the
    homefront, so he put less emhasis on it. In other words, if there was
    an issue with a prop in the Iraq scenes – say a gun wasn’t firing just
    right – Eastwood would have put in the time and effort to make sure it
    was fixed and looked right… because his film was all about war.
    Because the baby incident happened on the homefront, where he was less
    concerned, he was content to use a fake baby when, perhaps, the real
    baby was being too fussy or something. Or 2) Given that Eastwood’s
    directing style is all about efficiency, he wasn’t willing to spend all
    day trying to get a real baby to cooperate. The fake baby was good
    enough for him, and – perhaps because he’s senile or something – he
    figured nobody would perceive it was fake anyways.

    Yeah, right.

    To all of you that think either 1 or 2, go back and watch
    Unforgiven, Changeling, Mystic River, Flags of our Fathers, Letters From
    Iwo Jima, Gran Torino… hell, just watch the rest of American Sniper.
    Yes, the guy is efficient. He doesn’t spend too long on takes, usually
    going for the first or second one. But that doesn’t mean he settles for
    mediocrity at the expense of time. Go back to those other films I listed
    and show me something as obviously ridiculous (if that is your take) as
    a fake baby. He doesn’t do it. Eastwood is an extremely precise
    director. There are a number of reasons why Eastwood – or any director –
    would prefer an actor’s first or second take… laziness is not one of
    them. Go watch the “making of” or “behind the scenes” selection on any
    of the films above – you’ll see what I mean.

    So why a fake baby? Well, if we disregard the silly reasons above,
    then we’re left with the fact that Eastwood, in the midst of making a
    film that meant a lot to him, decided that a fake baby would be
    appropriate for a crucial scene at Chris Kyle’s home, between Kyle and
    his wife, between tours of duty, in which Kyle’s wife is expressing her
    concern at his detachment to his family and that she and the child just
    might not be around when he comes home if he decides to go back to Iraq.

    First of all, let me point out that in every other scene in the film –
    and there are a few – including another crucial scene that let’s the
    audience witness Kyle’s mental state – Eastwood used a real baby.
    Second, let me also point out that Eastwood is no stranger to using
    symbols in his film. Take the random scene in Mystic River, where Davy
    is watching a vampire flick – of all things – and talks about being a
    vampire. I don’t want to give anything away here, because it is a
    spoiler, but many besides me have pointed out that this symbolism is
    very crucial to understanding who Davy is and what exactly he’s going
    through. So, that said, perhaps there’s a third possibility for the fake
    baby: 3) If my interpretation is right, and American Sniper really is
    about the way the military family consumes/destroys the real family,
    than perhaps the fake baby is symbolic of what is happening to Kyle’s
    family every time he re-enlists and returns to Iraq (chooses the false
    family). The more “real” his military family becomes, the less “real”
    his family at home becomes – at least to him. If you read my review of
    Changeling, one of the things that I said make it such a great film is
    the attention to detail – this is a trademark of an Eastwood film. I
    refuse to believe that Eastwood has all of sudden – especially in his
    major films, of which I include American Sniper – decided to make
    obviously poor decisions in regards to the details.

    BTW, I post this now, the day before the Oscars, because the fake
    baby – especially given how much publicity it has now gotten – seems
    like the kind of joke that will pop up on the Oscars. I’m not sure if
    this will happen, but if the fake baby does become a sort of pop culture
    joke, it wouldn’t surprise me if Eastwood, or perhaps someone like
    Bradley Cooper, actually addresses the issue. Given that Eastwood is not
    known for interpreting his films for the masses, perhaps he’ll just
    laugh it off – who knows. Perhaps it won’t even come up, but there’s a
    small part of me that thinks that Eastwood has been holding back on the
    meaning of American Sniper until after the Oscars – not because he’s
    trying to trick anyone – but because he believes he has something
    important to say in the film, and wants to ensure that it garners the
    widest audience as possible. The crowd that is flocking to this film is
    the crowd that needs to hear this particular message. If the film had
    been released as an anti-war film, chances are that the majority of
    these viewers would never had gone. Just my speculation.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    Why would any parent take his 4-year-old to see a movie full of harsh violence and language? That’s insane.

    I agree that the movie takes a sober look at PTSD rather than glorifying violence, but I can still see why people on the liberal side of the spectrum find it distasteful. Even if it’s not a celebration of violence, it still treats soldiers and their masculinity with respect. And it doesn’t walk in with the assumption that Chris Kyle was a murderer, which is enough to make the movie inadequate all by itself for some people.

    However, I disliked the way it muddied the moral waters in one of Kyle’s key sniping decisions. In his book, Kyle says that he would never shoot a child. There was an incident where he saw a child who’d been sent forward to pick up a weapon, he had the child in his crosshairs, and he made a clean decision not to shoot. But the movie shows him agonizing and even prepared to kill. Ironically, people say the movie shows Kyle as a softie versus his character in real life, but here’s a case where his decision for LIFE was actually a firmer one.

    Also, Kyle never made a comment about the death of his friend to the effect that “his letter killed him.” In fact, Kyle describes the letter as “amazing” in his book. Another subtle but annoying manipulation of fact.

    • jeffreyoverstreet

      I agree that an adult would have to be crazy to take a small child to a film like this. Ugh.

      For what it’s worth: I probably fall on what some people call “the liberal side,” although I would argue that my opinions jump all over the spectrum, depending on the question at hand. And I don’t find the film distasteful.

      What’s more: The vast majority of film critics I know would identify themselves as “on the liberal side,” and almost all of them have praised the movie.

      What I do hear many of the so-called “liberal critics” saying is that the film presents such a complicated and troubling view of the effect of violence on our troops that they cannot comprehend why the film is being embraced as a “Go USA, get those bad guys!” kind of movie. And they are troubled that the movie’s themes would be so severely misinterpreted as to fire moviegoers up to express hatred toward Muslims.

      Eastwood himself said “the biggest antiwar 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.”

      Anyway, I’m not interested in contributing to the shouting match between the gladiators of the so-called conservative/liberal divide over this movie. I know plenty of self-identifying conservatives and plenty of self-identifying liberals who are talking about it respectfully with one another without boxing each other into narrow definitions or views. So, for what it’s worth, I’m going to keep the comment thread here focused on the movie, and not entertain any comments that seem to perpetuate stereotypes and narrow labels.

      • Evan Forshage

        I think part of the reason that people interpret it as pro war has more to do with comments made by Chris Kyle in his autobiography. To clarify, he said that he had interpreted his orders while in Iraq as “Kill every male you see. That wasn’t the official language, but that was the idea.”
        Mainly, the complaints I’ve heard about the movie are that it makes a hero out of a war criminal, by imposing traits that simply don’t apply to the man whose life this movie is based on.
        Now, when I saw the movie, I was unaware of the comments made by Kyle, and I admit I didn’t really like it much. I felt that Bradley Cooper did a good job, but the rest… no. At times I felt it was far too subtle with how it presented some of the story elements. It literally took me a day to realize the reason that Kyle got suspicious of the one guy at dinner when he saw his bruised elbow, which really hampered my enjoyment of the scene as I tried to figure out why Kyle had randomly started flipping tables and rugs. Of course, maybe everyone else got it immediately and I’m just an idiot. But I do think that the movie is simply too subtle with its message (if you are correct in your theory), as evidenced by all the people who gave standing ovations whenever an Iraqi got killed.
        While I could get behind the idea that the movie is about a soldier dealing with the immoral actions one has to do in war, I don’t think a biopic of Chris Kyle was the best movie to do it in. After learning about the statements he made in his book I just can’t see the man Clint Eastwood wants me to see in his movie. I can only see the man that Chris Kyle said he was, and I don’t think I can agree with that man.
        Do you think we should take into account whether a movie is accurate to the story its based on when reviewing it? Because as long as the movie says it is about the life of Chris Kyle, I can’t help but think that it failed to do what it set out to accomplish.