A lot of controversy surrounds the best picture Oscar nominated movie American Sniper directed by Clint Eastwood starring Bradley Cooper. Much of the controversy surrounds the protagonist of the film Chris Kyle, Lindy West calls him a hate-filled killer and David French calls him a hero. Some say the movie glorifies war. Among them is the Supreme Leader of my country who has said the movie encourages the murder of Muslims. Many liberal outlets have called the movie Republican propaganda or telling FoxNews lies. Many conservatives themselves agree, and they are furious that the film didn’t win an Oscar they thought it deserved. Eastwood himself says the movie is anti-war, and says also the progressive atheist blogger PZ Myers, and watching the movie I agree with them.
American Sniper is a movie about violence and the deep effect it leaves on people’s soul. It’s about wounded individuals. I think its anti-war message has gone unnoticed for two main reasons: firstly, the movie is very sympathetic towards Chris Kyle, picturing him as the product and the victim of a violent culture, and secondly, it’s very subtle in its imagery and how it conveys its message. But watching the movie carefully will reveal that it is deeply anti-war.
This article, of course, includes spoilers. So don’t read it if you’re the type of person who would mind that, although I promise you it’s not the kind of movie that can be spoiled by knowing the plot.
The movie begins by showing Chris Kyle’s upbringing. We see how violence is glorified and idealized by Chris’s father, teaching him how the way to solve problems, and how “weakness” is derided, and how Chris is rewarded for being violent and for being someone who doesn’t complain about his situation. Chris then goes on to become a cowboy, and then a soldier. As a soldier he meets other mentors, who continue to train him in the same way he was raised by his father. We see other soldiers displaying the same mentality. They constantly praise him for shooting down enemy soldiers, and they try to tell him to not pay any attention to the human cost of war, to the carnage it brings to innocent people.
Chris is raised to uphold an ethical system which can be called a toxic masculinity. He is taught by all the authority figures in his life that violence is the solution, and that you should never complain and be soft, that you should never show what hurts, acknowledge what hurts you.
We will see how this culture has taken its toll on Chris. We see how his brother and one of his comrades fall apart, and how actually their state mirror Chris’s. We see Chris falling apart himself. In the most obvious sense, we see him not going home after his final deployment, we see him act out violently in a barbecue party. He refuses the kindness of a man whose life he has saved.
Chris’s wife is the most important character who reveals his wounded psyche. His wife tells him you’re not here even when you’re here. But not all signs are so overt. After Chris’s final deployment, we see very clearly that his wife is afraid of him. She looks with worry as he plays with their children. She looks with fear at everything he does. Watch the final scenes of the movie again and pay attention to Sienna Miller’s acting. It’s very clear that this is not a happy homecoming.
And Chris never complains. He doesn’t complain to his therapist. He doesn’t complain to his family, except in a very uncharacteristic outburst. He bottles everything up, because that is the “manly” thing to do, and because this is what he was trained to do. But we see him suffer increasingly more as the movie goes by, and we owe this to Bradley Cooper’s subtle, but effective acting. Chris Kyle becomes a killing machine by the culture he was born to, and he suffers, and his family suffers.
And finally he is killed by another veteran. The same culture which created him and damaged him ultimately destroys him. We never see Chris’s murderer on screen, but it’s very easy to imagine that he is exactly like Chris.
In the movie the brunt of the violence is always suffered by the innocent. Chris begins his history of violence by killing a deer, an animal always associated with innocence. He kills a child in the first kill of his which is shown in the movie, and his enemies are introduced by killing a child. (I don’t know how a movie which includes so many child deaths can be considered pro-war). We are always reminded that the enemy has family and friends.
The Iraqi sniper is criticized by many, but that is also an invalid criticism. A good villain always mirrors the hero. In the movie we never get one of those “we’re just like each other” speeches, but the symmetry between the two characters is obvious in careful viewing. They’re both overachievers, they’re both stoic, they’re both masculine men, they’re both the best killers. Eastwood of course emphasizes that Chris is the better of the two, which is obviously true, but the Iraqi sniper is there for similarities, not differences.
And the movie ends by real footage of Chris Kyle being hailed as hero. I can’t imagine this not being bitterly ironic. American Sniper’s Chris Kyle is not a hero. Chris Kyle was a victim. His murderer was also a victim. So people treating him like a hero are missing the point. They’re perpetuating the same culture which destroyed Chris Kyle. By celebrating Chris Kyle the sniper, they’re celebrating the murder of Chris Kyle the human being.
The real Chris Kyle wrote in his memoir that he loves killing Arabs and called them savages. The Guardian writer Lindy West wonders whether Chris Kyle a serial killer who wanted to mask his thirst for blood in a job which legally allows killing and even celebrates it as valor. But Eastwood’s Chris Kyle is a victim, a shattered man, and such remarks are only meant to mask his wounded soul because he was raised to value violence and remorselessness. We can never know the content of the heart of the real Chris Kyle, and that is Eastwood’s artistic and authorial interpretation of Kyle.
But ironically, Eastwood’s interpretation is a much stronger, sharper, and more valid critique of war than the complaints of his critics. In Eastwood’s interpretation, the problem is not Chris Kyle, an individual, but the culture which created and destroyed him. American Sniper is a powerful and beautiful work of art, and deeply humanistic in its heart.
Image credit: Hollywood Reporter