CINEMA by Symeon J. ThompsonNews Weekly
The horror and pity of war: American Sniper
, February 28, 2015
Symeon J. Thompson reviews American Sniper (rated MA 15+),
directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper.
American Sniper opens with a choice — a choice that is both simple, and difficult.
Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is on “overwatch”, providing overhead security for the U.S. Marines as they go door to door in Iraq. He sees a woman hand an explosive to a child, and the child begin to walk towards the Marines. Should he take the shot and face the consequences? Or should he refrain from taking the shot and face those consequences?
Australian strategist David Kilcullen, in his book Counterinsurgency (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), reprints his “Twenty-Eight Articles of Counter-Insurgency”. The 19th is: “Engage the women, beware the children.” Children, he argues, are a dangerous and unknown quantity, and one deserving every caution.
The film flashes back to showing the young Kyle growing up, learning to hunt, learning to be a man, working as a rodeo cowboy, enlisting in the SEALs after the 1990s attacks on Americans abroad, and becoming a member of an elite and ruthless military unit.
Kyle takes the shot. When the woman goes to take the explosive herself, he also takes that shot. He saves the soldiers, and his story begins. Nicknamed the “Legend” and the “Devil of Ramadi”, he is credited as “the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history” with 160 confirmed kills, and many more unconfirmed.
Clint Eastwood has made a deeply controversial movie about a deeply controversial man — a movie about which the resulting commentary is less on the quality of the film-making than about the choices made in the War on Terror, especially the choice of the U.S.-led coalition to invade Afghanistan and Iraq.
The film itself is a masterpiece of craftsmanship, sombre and restrained, that shows what actually happened, both in combat and back home. It doesn’t offer answers; it simply shows what happens, from the perspective of one man, as if from the scope of a rifle — although it does tweak things to make points: Kyle never shot a child, and the duel with the enemy sniper did not occur.
The movie has become an excuse to attack Chris Kyle, author of the book on which the film is based, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History (2012), and to call him a “vicious sociopath”, and more — all by folk opposed to the Iraq War of 2003-2011.
Also, it has become an excuse to justify the Iraq War, by saying, in essence: “Look how barbaric they are! Look how brave our men are! Were we not right to invade?”.
The reality, both of the film and of the situation it depicts, is much more complex and difficult. American Sniper resembles the great films, like Apocalypse Now or The Deer Hunter that emerged from the Vietnam War. Its take is hyper-realistic, with a heightening of circumstance for emphasis, while not being the barbaric and surreal wish-fulfilment of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.
Bradley Cooper says that this film is about when the soldiers return. They’ve served their country and come home broken, mentally and physically, and have difficulties returning to civilian life and employment. In this context, the rightness of the war is irrelevant. The decision to go to war was not made by the soldiers, but by the politicians, and yet it is the soldiers who suffer.
Much of the controversy of this film stems from Kyle’s own attitude. He refers to the Iraqis as “savages”, and states his only regret is that he couldn’t kill more of them to save more of his men. He’s adamant that the experience did not change him much.
Many commentators seem happy to take him at his word. But should he be? He had many other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and it’s known that that condition may not fully manifest itself for years.
In his memoir, he writes of the training he underwent. He emphasises that the key to being a SEAL is not physical toughness, but mental toughness; that these men have to be supremely disciplined, to the extent of disciplining their own minds and not allowing any weakness in.
It seems reasonable to believe that anyone who survives such training would be exceptionally resilient and possess this attitude to a high degree and unbendingly. After all, elite troops are drilled to understand that it is such attitudes that make the difference between living and dying.
Chris Kyle and his attitudes are frozen in time. He can no longer change his mind — which is rather convenient for all involved in the debate. His critics can depict him as a symbol of whatever they want him to represent — the evil of war, the pride of the warrior.
On returning home, Kyle became more and more involved in helping wounded veterans, in giving them back their dignity and their ordinary humanity, by being an ordinary decent bloke and treating them like ordinary decent blokes.
One of them killed him. It’s almost as if the gods of war decided that Chris Kyle was not to have a different life, that he was to remain simply, an American Sniper.
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA).