“American Sniper” Review: A Tale of Vengeance
“American Sniper” is the new movie starring Bradley Cooper as US Navy Seal sniper Chris Kyle and Sienna Miller as his wife, Taya. This Clint Eastwood directed action drama is eliciting alternating praise and criticism for its portrayal of Kyle’s four tours of duty in Iraq where he is credited with over 160 kills, including an astounding mile long sniper shot.
I went into the movie with very little to no knowledge about Kyle. So events in his life not covered in the movie are not going to be addressed here (eg. whether he did or didn’t say something about Jesse Ventura). I’m not leaving these things out just because they are irrelevant to the movie, but because they are irrelevant to my life in general. In fact all of Chris Kyle’s life is basically irrelevant to my life, and I hadn’t intended on spending on any time watching this movie. But ultimately I’m glad I did and I think others should as well.
Among the libertarian/anarchist/anti-state crowd there has been a general categorization of this movie as a sort of patriotic romp sure to stir up pride and appreciation for the “sacrifices of the troops.” And indeed there are sacrifices made by the men and women and families portrayed. But to Eastwood’s and Cooper’s credit, this is is never sincerely passed off as sacrifices made for anybody in the theater, nor even for the American non-combatants in the film.
War is an evil, disgusting, ugly, dehumanizing affair and that truth isn’t obfuscated in this film (with one exception I’ll address later). I honestly don’t know how anyone could watch this movie and come away with any sort of pride or sense of patriotism. At some level, the casual American viewer is probably going to feel some sense of appreciation for the hardships that soldiers endure. But this isn’t an earned appreciation based on what’s shown in this film.
It isn’t earned because Chris Kyle and his comrades are shown to endure a fairly brutal training regimen with many opportunities to “wash out” and leave. But the determination that drives them reveals a deep desire by these men to get into the middle of war. They wanted to be out on the front line fighting and killing and they’d go through whatever freezing, muddy, humiliating process it took to get there. And according to the narrative of the story, the driving desire for Kyle was, and ever increasingly became, plain vengeance.
Bradley Cooper delivered a superb performance as Kyle. In his younger adult days (Kyle was 30 when he joined the military according to the film), Kyle is shown as a rather transient, devil-may-care cowboy with a knack from childhood for shooting. In some obvious foreshadowing his father tells him as a child that he’ll grow up to be a great hunter after he takes down a deer. Then young Kyle is shown intervening in a schoolyard fight to rescue his little brother. Again his father foreshadows the role he expects (and we all expect) of the boy growing into a man to play. That of a sheepdog who protects the sheep (people who can’t fight evil) from the wolves (the evil). But with Cooper’s portrayal of the young adult Kyle as the tumbleweed rodeo star we get a glimpse of a man who is ultimately living his life for his own selfish ends, not the great protector of the weak that his father envisioned.
It is the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing that gets Kyle interested in joining the military (along with an injury he sustained apparently ending his bronco riding career). This scene comes across as if Kyle is personally affronted by the Khobar incident. It’s at points like this that Cooper’s performance really shines. As Kyle he mouths the normal platitudes about “Americans being attacked” and “wanting to protect,” but the delivery of the lines makes them come off as rather insincere. And it is this delivery, with deft subtlety, that turns this from a hero-worshipping tale of the troops to a complex examination of what makes men fly around the world and kill others.
Unfortunately, the patriotic, flag-waving crowd will probably not catch this nuance. But it is repeated enough that it can’t be ignored. Kyle makes his statements at different points about what he is fighting for: keeping American’s safe, keeping his family safe, keeping his fellow troops safe. But these sound like rote talking points that he’s learned to say and he isn’t convincing: not to his wife, not to his little brother, eventually not even to himself. After fighting tooth and nail to make it into war, Kyle can’t stand his life away from it. He’s fighting because he wants to.
Kyle’s continuing sense of vengeance (or some barbaric justice) takes precedence over his marriage, his kids, and even his comrades. His first tour is about wreaking vengeance on those he believes brought down the World Trade Center and comes on the heels of his wedding. His Second Tour was about vengeance against a mid-level Al Qaeda enforcer who killed an information asset and takes him away from his wife struggling with a newborn. His third and fourth tours were about vengeance against an opposing sniper who had begun to take out Kyle’s team.
At home his wife and family have grown distant and disconnected. He’s totally absent as a father and husband. It’s in between these tours that Kyle tries to use the “defending you” argument with his wife, but she’s not buying it. And as a viewer, I wasn’t buying it either. Near the climax, (*spoiler*) immediately after killing the sniper he’s been hunting and in the middle of a tense firefight, Kyle calls his wife to say he’s ready to come home. Score settled; revenge executed; mission accomplished. To me this just reiterated that he wasn’t there for anything but his own vendetta.
This raging anger against those who hit targets increasingly close to him blinds Kyle from any sense of duty to anything but his own violent sense of justice. When one of his men is gravely wounded, he rushes off with the rest of his men into an ambush that ultimately costs him another friend and teammate death. Instead of recognizing his own headlong rush into that tragedy, Kyle later blames that soldier’s death on the doubts the soldier expressed about the justness of the war. If you had gotten this far into the movie and weren’t sure that this was a sick man with a twisted sense of morality, that scene would remove all doubt. Remember, he wanted to be in the middle of the death and mayhem of the war. He wanted to be killing “bad guys” 8,000 miles away. What’s to appreciate about that?
Stepping back a little from Kyle, the entire execution of the war in Iraq as shown is a horrific display of an invading army raining destruction on people who had little to nothing to do with any of the events that were used to precipitate the war. I couldn’t help but feel like I was watching updated scenes of German soldiers going house to house when the US soldiers invaded Fallujah and other Iraqi cities. If you feel patriotic while watching heavily armed soldiers terrorizing women and children in their homes, this will surely swell your chest with pride. But if you see it as a horrible injustice, you may find your stomach churning.
Some will argue that those women and children were enemy combatants. Indeed, Kyle’s first sniper kill is a boy and mother trying to defend their homes from invading forces. But this begs the question: what made these people enemy combatants? No one but the most perverse thinks of the Iraqi people as a threat to the North American continent or the people inhabiting it. These people were not aggressively attacking Americans on American soil.
Even if you buy into the US Government narrative that Iraq was involved in 9/11, the general population of Iraq weren’t behind it. Certainly this mother and son had nothing to do with it. But faced with an invading force who were destroying, looting, kidnapping and killing, they took the actions that every red-blooded, III%, militia member would also take to defend their home. Somehow, the Iraqis are evil for defending their own homes. The extent to which anyone excuses Chris Kyle for murdering this child is the extent to which their humanity is gone.
In the days leading up to the release of “American Sniper” a meme started circulating that compared Chris Kyle to Finnish sniper, Simo Häyhä. While some of the comparisons are off or juvenile, one is very important: Chris Kyle was part of a foreign invading force. He wasn’t defending his family, home, neighbors or countrymen by murdering women and children in Iraq. He was working as a paid mercenary for the state and crony US interests. He wasn’t defending the weak as his father had hoped, he was the wolf on the doorstep. In fact, the opposing sniper was more of a hero, defending his home, family and neighbors from invaders. Like Simo Häyhä.
This was the feeling I couldn’t shake throughout the whole movie. The US troops weren’t the good guys in this story. They were the aggressors fighting for their own reason or no reason, lying unconvincingly about it to others. The desperate and beleaguered Iraqis weren’t the bad guys in this story. They were doing what any of us would do facing an invading army. The morality of actions doesn’t change based simply on the birth latitude and longitude of actor. If Chris Kyle was a Soviet from 40 years ago, we’d view his actions as reprehensible. But simply because he was born on the same land mass as most viewers, we’re supposed to give him a pass? Or worse, offer him praise?
That is why I think people should watch this movie. It pulls few punches in showing the ugliness of war and it offers a powerful Rorschach for the viewer. Do you see a child-murdering hero? Or a villainous invader? Maybe you see a tragic man trying hard to fulfill his duty to protect others. Or you just see a vengeful, angry hitman seeking to settle his personal vendettas. At best, American Sniper portrays the tragedy of men who are duped into going to war for the lies of politicians and war profiteers.
In that light, it serves as a warning for anyone considering becoming a part of the military industrial machine. Your fate is early death or worse ending up like the men in the VA without arms, legs, eyes or families. 21 shots at your funeral won’t give your children a father or your wife any comfort. Even your own comrades will denigrate you in death if you question what you are being told to do. Some brotherhood. You could even end up close to a destructive and careless man like Chris Kyle who will lead you to your death for the sake of settling his personal score. So take your teenage children to see “American Sniper” or go see it yourself. Learn a lesson from these guys: don’t throw your life away for anybody’s war.
Finally, I mentioned that there was one exception to the portrayal of war as a disgusting affair. That came at the very end when Kyle is seen years after his tours and on the day of his death. The distant, hardened killer is shown to have developed some new sense of humanity. He’s a model husband and father full of smiles, playfulness and helpfulness. The past appears to never have happened. A single line of dialog indicates that he went through a lot of work to be re-humanized. But tying up a tragic story like this with a happy ending felt cheap and dishonest. Sure it goes on to say he was killed by a vet and ultimately ends on a decorated casket. But that is made out to be a tragedy for the loss of a great family man. Instead of the two minutes of sweet family time, it would have been more appropriate to portray his death as the expected and ultimate end for a man so filled with violence and vengeance as Chris Kyle.