Next in our line-up of Oscar-nominated film reviews is Clint Eastwood’s highly controversial American Sniper (2014). Nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor, it is the highest grossing war movie in history.
Heavy, heavy spoilers ahead!
Based on the memoir of the same name by Chris Kyle, American Sniper follows his four tours in Iraq after 9/11. Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is a Navy SEAL sniper on a convoy in the Middle East. In the opening scene, he spots a woman and child. The woman hands a grenade to her son, and as he runs forward, intent on throwing the grenade at the convoy, Kyle must make the decision whether or not to shoot. Before he can pull the trigger, we are thrust into a flashback.
Young Kyle is taught how to shoot by his father in the woods of Texas. His father imparts words of wisdom, phrases such as “you don’t ever leave your rifle in the dirt” and “you’re gonna make a fine hunter someday”—obvious foreshadowing for the audience. Later, in 1998, Kyle is working as a rodeo cowboy when he sees footage of the United States embassy bombings. He decides to enlist in the Navy, where a recruiter tells him about the SEALs. The next several scenes show intense Navy SEAL training, enough to exhaust you just from watching it.
Not long after completing training, Kyle meets Taya (Sienna Miller) at a bar. At first she doesn’t seem interested, calling SEALs “arrogant, self-centered pricks.” Her sentiments don’t last long, however, and soon they are dating regularly. At the same time, Kyle is undergoing specialized sniper training. Taya brings up several points to him, such as “what happens when there’s a real person at the other end of the gun?” Kyle admits that he doesn’t know, but will deal with it when it happens. Although Taya doesn’t seem to entirely approve of his attitude, they wed just before he begins his first tour in Iraq.
We are back at the first scene, where we realize that the woman and child are Kyle’s first kills. He saves the convoy from harm, but cannot stop thinking about the child he shot. Despite some inner turmoil, he continues being an excellent marksman, earning the respect of his fellow soldiers and the nickname “the legend.” (Indeed, this was only the beginning. Kyle is credited with 160 confirmed kills, and has been called the deadliest marksman in American military history.)
A few weeks before going home for the birth of his son, Kyle and his team are on a mission to find al-Qaeda member Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. While interrogating people in a village, they learn Zarqawi’s second-in-command is a man known only as the Butcher, a militant who tortures his victims using a drill. A man offers to lead the team to the Butcher, but the mission goes awry. The butcher kills the man and his son—Kyle’s attempt to protect them was thwarted by a mysterious sniper using an SVD.
While at home, things are strained between Kyle and Taya. He seems distracted, but keeps insisting that he is completely fine. Taya realizes that war has changed him in more ways than one, but before they can work things out, he deploys for his second tour, with the sole intention of taking out the Butcher. The experience is numbing in ways that Kyle possibly doesn’t realize until it’s too late. Once again in Texas, he is increasingly jumpy at sounds, and distant from his family. Taya gave birth to a baby girl, but is increasingly frustrated. Her performance captures what countless military families go through, and what I wish the film would have focused on instead. “I’m making memories by myself. I have no one to share them with,” she confesses to Kyle. “Even when you’re here, you’re not here.”
During Kyle’s third tour, a unit member is seriously injured by the same enemy sniper and his SVD. The team is evacuated, but they return as soon as they are able. However, a SEAL is killed in a dramatic shootout, and Kyle goes home for his funeral. Even more on edge than before, he is hyper aware of his surroundings, eyeing cars on the road suspiciously. He decides to go back for a fourth tour, to Taya’s dismay. Despite her insistence that their children have no father, and that she needs him to “be human again,” Kyle’s mind is made up.
Fourth and final tour. The SVD sniper is identified as a man named Mustafa. While on a mission to take him out, Kyle spots movement approximately 1900 yards away. As the team is in a very dangerous position, inches from being discovered by insurgents, he is told not to fire as he’ll expose their location. In spite of the repeated warnings, and the fact that it is nearly an impossible shot from over a mile away, Kyle is certain that he can see Mustafa. He takes the shot, killing the enemy sniper. (Incidentally, the shot was at 2100 yards, and is the the 8th longest sniper kill ever recorded.) In the resulting firefight, Kyle calls Taya and confesses that is he ready to return home.
Stateside once more, Kyle has more trouble adjusting than ever. In one troubling incident, he nearly kills a dog who was playing with a child because he saw a potential threat. Finally acknowledging that he has PTSD, he visits a psychiatrist who encourages him to help his fellow veterans. He begins interacting with them, coaching them at a shooting range, and slowly begins adjusting to civilian life again. For the first time since the film began, Kyle is happy. By February of 2013, he seems like a different person. He is playful and cheerful with both his wife and children. Unfortunately, it isn’t to last: he goes to the shooting range with a friend and another vet, where he is shot and killed. The final scene is real footage and photos of Kyle’s funeral procession and memorial service, with a heart-wrenching rendition of Taps playing in the background.
American Sniper left me with mixed emotions. On the one hand, it is a well made film that highlights the difficult life of a soldier. It shows the immediate cause and effect of war, as seen via Kyle’s interactions with his family in between tours. On the other hand, it is a biased, one-sided, minimalist view of the Iraq War. This, of course, isn’t new. Just about any film dealing with a grey-area subject will take a partial side. There are typically two schools of thought in war films that have become popular tropes: “war is hell” versus “war is glorious.” American Sniper joins the ranks of films such as The Green Berets (1968), Black Hawk Down (2001), and Act of Valor (2012).
These intensely patriotic films, and others like them, romanticize and extol the acts of war. This isn’t always a problem, as long as the viewer remembers that everything should be taken with a grain of salt. The issue with American Sniper arises due to its timing. Tensions are high all over the world, and antipathy between the United States and predominantly Muslim nations is strong. Though many people recognize that the actions and thoughts of militant groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda are not the actions and thoughts of the Muslim people as a whole (indeed, blaming these actions on all followers of Islam is as closed-minded as blaming the Crusades on all Christians, or the Holocaust on all Germans), there are those who think differently. In light of recent events, American Sniper feels like pro-war propaganda. Consistent usage of the word “savages” throughout the film in reference to Muslims, as well as the blatant dehumanization of the Iraqi people, makes the movie feel like attempted justification for the war. I felt as though it was being shouted at me from the moment of Kyle’s first kill: “These people are feral, and we need the Americans to civilize them.” It isn’t surprising that Anti-Muslim threats and sentiments have increased dramatically since the release of American Sniper.
Luckily, many people have spoken up in response to both the film’s issues and the anti-Muslim feedback. One example is this article by Garett Reppenhagen, a former Cavalry Scout Sniper with the 1st Infantry Division in the United States Army. Reppenhagen urges viewers of American Sniper to remember that one man’s experience is not everyone’s.
I spent nights in Iraq lying prone and looking through a 12-power sniper scope. You only see a limited view between the reticles. That’s why it’s necessary to keep both eyes open. This way you have some ability to track targets and establish 360 degrees of awareness.
In a way, it’s an analogy for keeping the whole Iraq mission in perspective and fully understanding the experiences of the U.S. war fighters during Operation Iraqi Freedom. No single service member has the monopoly on the war narrative. It will change depending on where you serve, when you were there, what your role was, and a few thousand other random elements.
[Chris Kyle’s] portrayal is not unrealistic. My unit had plenty of soldiers who thought like that. When you are sacrificing so much, it’s tempting to believe so strongly in the “noble cause,” a belief that gets hardened by the fatigue of multiple tours and whatever is going on at home. But viewing the war only through his eyes gives us too narrow a frame.
During my combat tour I never saw the Iraqis as “savages.” They were a friendly culture who believed in hospitality, and were sometimes positive to a fault. The people are proud of their history, education system and national identity…I met some incredible Iraqis during and after my deployment, and it is shameful to know that the movie has furthered ignorance that might put them in danger.
If you have not yet seen this film, I don’t want to discourage you from watching it. But regardless of your personal views on the conflicts in both the Middle East and at home, keep an open mind. Don’t take American Sniper as gospel truth. In the words of Reppenhagen, “if you really want to be a patriotic American, keep both eyes open and maintain 360 degrees of awareness.”
To read more about the Oscar nominations, click here.
Until next week,
The Collected Mutineer
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