I knew before seeing the film AMERICAN SNIPER that its politics were not in sync with mine. I’d heard enough from friends and from the news to know that people were having serious issues with the film while others were celebrating it. Yet I tried to know as little as possible about the plot. I wanted to see for myself how the film played, what the message was that I took away from it. I had heard that the title character was painted with much grayer tones than the black and white mentality that Chris Kyle apparently exhibits in his book of the same name. I was hoping, to an extent, that perhaps Eastwood’s film was polarizing because of its grey areas, that it might have been more open to interpretation, more provocative, even if I didn’t personally agree with all its sentiments.
What I saw instead was a film that seemed to exhibit a complete lack of irony and self-awareness. For me, the film white-washes PTSD and the horrific effects war has on the individuals who suffered at the hands of it, while at the same time feeding and validating myths about the war in Iraq and our role in it. The mere fact that this film has been widely embraced by American audiences is quite worrisome. And the sentiment that the film “isn’t political” is utter bollocks and a clear indication that many people do not like to think too deeply or peer inward and recognize the complexities of human existence, a notion the film seems to celebrate by being, itself, the reference guide for a lack of self-awareness.
AMERICAN SNIPER opens with the young Chris Kyle coming to the rescue of his younger brother who is being brutally beaten by the school bully. Kyle, in turn, brutally beats the bully to a bloody pulp. This gives way to Chris’ father (played by my friend Ben Reed, a terrific actor) who threatens violence with his belt all in the name of teaching his kids that they should neither be sheep nor wolves. They are not to be bullied, nor do the bullying. They are the ones who protect the weak from the bullies. They are the ones who come in and “finish” the job in the name of all that is righteous and just.
What AMERICAN SNIPER doesn’t seem to have any awareness of is that Chris Kyle and his SEAL brothers are, to any open-minded and observant viewpoint, the bullies of the film. The attack on 9/11 is shown as one of the key motivators in the film for Kyle’s desire to go and fight, to protect. This instinct, instilled by his father, is now a part of his DNA. Yet the film makes no mention of the very real fact that the U.S. had invaded a country that was not involved with the attacks on 9/11. They had, in fact, not attacked us at all. We attacked them. Unprovoked. The first time this has happened in U.S. history. And while the film takes a moment to suggest that there were soldiers who, briefly, questioned the war, those characters are ultimately shown as weak. Chris’ SEAL brother Marc Lee’s letter to his family is read posthumously at his funeral in the film, and he is painted as a soldier whose questioning beliefs are directly linked to what made him weak and resulted in his death.
Perhaps asking such questions in the midst of battle is a very dangerous thing, but I would question the film’s definition and portrayal of “weak” since the film itself seems to be unwilling to ask these questions itself. To this end, the film presents thinking, thoughtfulness and awareness as, in fact, weaknesses. Kyle’s own brother, who was seen getting beat up in the film’s opening moments, is clearly traumatized by his experiences in Iraq. The last time we see him, he is clearly shaken, damaged and exclaiming “Fuck this place” to his brother Chris who simply cannot understand his own brother’s actions and words. But the film never seems to place the onus on Chris to try and understand, but instead paints Chris’ brother as “too weak” to be of any use. He is, in essence, once again, the sheep their father warned against. We never see this character again, not even after Chris returns home.
Chris and his SEAL mates are shown, tour after tour, risking their lives to protect one another. But right from the get-go, the Iraqis are presented as “alien.” Chris’ first kill is a mother and child. Not what he wanted. But in this country, mother’s don’t protect their children, but send them out to die. No irony there. They are a twisted enemy, a world turned upside down. Inhuman. Savages, as our hero refers to them time and again.
The film does show a single frightened Iraqi family whose members have been mutilated by the horrible regime America has come here to annihilate, the bullies we are here to “finish.” They place this family in jeopardy and the result is the “bad guys” end up killing both the father of this family and one of the children. And not just with a gun, but with a drill. Yet it is “our” men who put them in harm’s way, promised to protect them, and failed to do so. But there seems to be no remorse at this failure, just a simple reprimand that the area hadn’t been properly secured. It’s not about the lives lost, but that the job wasn’t done correctly. No vengeance is sought for these senseless deaths for which the American soldiers are largely responsible.
Instead, where vengeance is sought is with an Iraqi sniper who has killed some of Chris’ SEAL brothers. And yet Eastwood never takes a moment to acknowledge that the Iraqi sniper and Chris Kyle are the same person. Instead, the film paints the Iraqi as the bad guy and Chris the good. And we are to celebrate Chris’ assassination of this evil sniper. The film never seems to peel back even the thinnest layer of comparison, to question what these men have in common. This is purely a mission of revenge taken on by the right to eliminate the wrong. There is no grey area here in Eastwood’s AMERICAN SNIPER. No one questions the Iraqi sniper’s desire to kill those who are trying to kill HIS brothers, those who invaded HIS country. Chris Kyle, as a sniper, has done exactly the same thing as his Iraqi sniper counterpart. The motivation is the same for both sides. Except that in reality, Chris is part of the invading mob and the Iraqi soldier defending his own beliefs and his own country. I’m not saying the Iraqi is the good guy and that Chris is the bad guy, far from it, but that in this instance there really are no good guys and bad guys.
AMERICAN SNIPER goes a long way toward perpetuating a belief system that allows us to dehumanize other human beings, that turns questioning into weakness. Maybe that is what is necessary for the soldier to survive in a war zone, but it is NOT what audiences need to experience a film. And no, I do not buy that the film is just from Chris Kyle’s perspective and therefore represents his beliefs and viewpoint. I can see absolutely no indication that Eastwood or anyone else involved with the making of this film feels any different. AMERICAN SNIPER did not come across to me as a motion picture revealing the sometimes misguided delusions of war. My experience of the film was that the filmmaker wholeheartedly agreed with those delusions and held them aloft as heroic truths. This is, in my eyes, extraordinarily dangerous filmmaking. Which isn’t to say Eastwood had no right to make it, he did, and I’m glad he did as it unwittingly shines a very bright light on the mentality that allows this form of thinking to exist. It shows us how many Americans see the world, how they process the information given them, and how easy it is to paint a picture that is more palpable to the masses. And it’s all enveloped in a cocoon of unawareness, of falsehoods and denial. Like many religious beliefs, it allows its followers to “let go,” to avert existential crises, to simply breathe easy and let “something else” take over, let someone else do the thinking.
Even the potential portrayal of an Iraqi family as “just a normal family” is denied by Eastwood when the family invites the SEALS to have dinner with them. The shots of the family members are treated with suspicion, from the kids to the mother. And, as would happen in this narrative, the family that reminded us of ourselves, of our own families is, in actuality, hiding munitions. Yes, they are the enemy. And while this event may have actually happened, it is how the filmmaker chooses to use it in the context of this story and the overall irresponsible portrayal of Iraqi individuals that concerns me.
After witnessing scene after scene of Chris and his brothers being unwittingly portrayed as bullies by a director who can only see them as heroes, Chris Kyle arrives home where the costs of war are not pushed aside by the film, but acknowledged. He suffers from PTSD and the portrayal is accurate in many ways (I watched the film with a therapist friend whose job it is to work with veterans and their families who suffer with PTSD and other war-related illnesses and we had quite a long discussion afterwards). Where Eastwood fails in this department, in my opinion, is in how quickly and relatively simply Chris Kyle’s PTSD is essentially “cured.” Without any sense of irony, Chris is shown as a vet in denial of the effects of his experiences. Eastwood seems to have no ability here to see the parallels between Kyle’s reaction to his military service and AMERICAN SNIPERS’ denial of its own twisted narrative.
Kyle sees a therapist who takes him to meet war vets, all disfigured, physically mutilated by the war. And yet, each one of them seems to be just fine. One is simply happy to still have his right hand, though large segments of the rest of his body are missing. They all smile and laugh and no one questions whether it was worth it, no one mourns the loss of anything and, instead, bond over target practice at a shooting range. This interaction, it is suggested, is what helps Kyle move past his PTSD. And within minutes, what must have been a difficult and painful journey, is truncated into Kyle’s wife proclaiming that she knows it was difficult, but now she is happy to finally have her husband back. And Kyle is. He is his old self again, no traces of the pain or difficulty or potential damage done to him. And this final scene happens on the heels of Kyle playfully pointing a gun at his wife and “pretending” to be a sheriff in an old classic western. This is used once again, with no seeming sense of irony, as romantic foreplay, a return to “normal.”
This moment is followed by a single sentence at the end of the film illustrating that Kyle was killed by a vet he was simply trying to help. While that may be true, this sentence completely disregards what that vet was going through and what damaged him in the first place. The sentence reads like an innocent killed by some randomly fucked up dude. Kyle, the reluctant hero, was just trying to help… Again, where is the film’s sense of irony that Kyle is killed by a vet while engaging in target practice as a means of “recovery.” Eastwood and his film seem unaware of their own distorted viewpoint regarding guns and their place in society, in the home, in the hands of military personnel no longer on the battle field. All irony and self-awareness is buried beneath a terrifyingly false veneer of righteousness and heroism.
I’m not even going to write in-depth about the real Chris Kyle and the hateful, racist words he had written in his own book. I do not know what made him see the world the way he did, but I can imagine the U.S. military had a hand in that creation, perhaps along with a violent, misguided father. Instead, I am more interested in commenting on the Chris Kyle in Eastwood’s film and the complete lack of introspection and awareness exhibited in the telling of this story, as well as the public desire for such a tale and the inherent dangers of fullfilling this demand.
Filmmakers like Eastwood give audiences what they need and desire to not have to think, to not ask questions, to settle into a narrative that makes them feel better, puts them at ease.
And, I believe, dramatically and dangerously hinders their growth.