Was there a better trailer in 2014 than “American Sniper’s” initial pulse-hammering debut teaser? The silent, intense build-up pulled us in straight away, suggesting the film would revolve around a sniper’s moral anxiety and unfortunate consequential PTSD.
For those that don’t know, “American Sniper” is based on the infamous Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, a four-tour serviceman with over 160 confirmed kills, giving him the title of the most lethal sniper in U.S. history. Kyle was honorably discharged in 2009, and during that time wrote a book on his experiences, entitled “American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History.” He was also widely revered for his assistance in working with veterans struggling with PTSD.
Now, I’ve read several chapters (a solid half) of Chris Kyle’s autobiography from which the film is adapted. Explained in detail is his early life as a rancher, his recruitment into the BUD/S program (a program all SEALs must pass), his day-to-day job in Iraq inspecting (and sometimes taking down) oil tankers trying to smuggle illegal items that violated international sanctions, and his experiences in Baghdad, Ramadi, as well as his contribution during the second battle of Fallujah. There’s also a fair amount of revealing, personal information regarding his home life with his family between each deployment.
From all my reading about him, plus the dozens of interviews I’ve dug up, here’s my opinion on Chris: On one hand, his embodiment of God, family, and country values is extremely noble, and something to be admired. There’s honorable virtue in a man upholding the preservation of America’s traditional principles, so I do have a soft spot for him. On the other hand, I’m a bit ambivalent towards his simplified, Bible-belting “rah rah,” Texan black-and-white ideologies, especially in regards to some of his sweeping generalizations of the entire Middle East population. I’ve never been to the Middle East, though, so I can’t really dispute whether they’re “all savages,” as Kyle calls them, or not. I understand that Kyle likely had a hardened view of the world. Most of his deployment is based around facing and killing the ugliest forms of terrorism.
Moreover, past the offensive statements and downright xenophobic outlook that permeate the first half of the book, Kyle seems to have a propensity to toot his own horn a bit, chiefly when it comes to petty bar fights over women. These segments really add nothing to the book and, most likely unknown to Kyle, cast him in a negative light as someone boastful, egocentric, and obsessed with childish brawling. Yet, he seems to apply all these traits to all SEALs and servicemen, as if they’re some inherent character trait. I don’t think all men who’ve served would agree with that. In fact, I’m sure a more sophisticated bunch would find it downright embarrassing.
This leads me into even more controversy surrounding the legend. Kyle has been caught outright lying on a number of occasions. Most notorious was the defamation lawsuit filed by Jesse Ventura. In the book, Kyle told a story in which he got confrontational with another military celebrity who had been bad-mouthing America, the troops, and President Bush. He then proceeded to teach him a bit of a lesson. In Kyle’s words, he “laid him out” and claims the guy “ended up on the floor.” Kyle later confirmed the SEAL to be Ventura. After Kyle’s death, Ventura still pursued the high-profile lawsuit, claiming it was a lie. Ventura ended up winning $1.8 million in defamation.
In a separate story Kyle told, he and another SEAL sat atop the New Orleans Superdome after they’d been sent down by the Blackwater Security Firm to help with the Post-Katrina assistance. Kyle claims they shot and killed over 30 looters. The incident was all swept under the rug. In another far-fetched story, Kyle was at a Texas gas station when two men tried to rob him. He shot them both dead and immediately afterwards, contacted the Pentagon where he claims they recognized him as a SEAL, and thanked him for “keeping the streets clean.” Yet for both stories, there are no bodies, evidence, or documentation, nothing to prove that they even occurred. It seems Kyle had a habit of conceiving tall tales. The very fact that Kyle intentionally lied in his autobiography about the incident with Jesse Ventura calls into question how much of his autobiography we should even believe.
But can I talk about how much I do like Kyle? Here’s the thing: Chris Kyle may not have been a perfect person, but his contributions to his country should never be dismissed. Chris Kyle did serve his country bravely. Most importantly, he was the best at what he was trained to do (although he personally argued that he wasn’t the best sniper, only a decent one who just so happened to be given the most opportunities to kill.) His personal hero was Marine Carlos Hathcock, who served in Vietnam and has a confirmed record of 93 kills. I stand behind the man in every shot that he took, even if some of those shots may have involved innocents. As a country, we grant soldiers a certain authority because we recognize that the choices they have to make are challenging and difficult. He’s taken out some real high-target threats, not only threats to us, but to his fellow comrades to whom he had the utmost allegiance.
When Kyle returned home, it wasn’t the hundreds of human lives he put an end to that haunted him: it was his fellow soldiers that he wasn’t able to save. There’s something poignant about his patriotism, even if some of it is falsely built around deluded conservative, Christian fundamentalism and blind flag waving. It’s pretty disgusting to hear people call him a murderer without being prepared to put their lives on the line. He’s a protector and defender in the truest sense of the word. I truly am fascinated by Kyle, his imperfections included, which is why I was very excited to see Clint Eastwood’s film treatment of his life.
Bradley Cooper’s scarily on-point performance as Kyle is about the only thing that anchors Eastwood’s politically and morally problematic film. Otherwise, this is another directorial semi-misfire from Eastwood, who seems to not have much interest other than exulting old-hat values and gung-ho American exceptionalism. If anyone hopes Eastwood’s “American Sniper” seriously focuses on PTSD, they’ll surely be disappointed. Personally, I was looking for something that was a deconstruction of the American myth of what it means to be a soldier, a film that broke down the archetypal, Hollywood golden-era John Wayne-esque characters, and revealed that not every hero is some indestructible superhuman. In no way did I want to see the film villainize our protagonist, but I did want to see the real Chris Kyle, flaws and all.
What we get is a film undercutting some obvious and important themes, discounting a lot of potentially interesting subject matter, and most offensively, being completely dishonest in segments. In the book, Kyle makes the statement, “I don’t shoot people with Bibles. I’d like to, but I don’t.” However, in the movie, after Cooper comes under judgment for making his own call on pulling the trigger, he tells his commanding officers, “I don’t know what a Quran looks like.” Some areas of the film grossly misrepresent the Kyle from his book. He may very well have had a hateful agenda towards Muslims, even though he still earns and deserve a massive amount of respect for going out there and doing a job most of us wouldn’t. What’s sad is that Eastwood is whitewashing Kyle, afraid to make him anything less than the perfect embodiment of heroism. Heck, the movie doesn’t even acknowledge the three previously stated, proven false fabrications. The truth is lost somewhere in between.
There are portions of “American Sniper,” however, that make it worth revisiting. This is a passion project for Cooper, his dedication never being anything less than a direct hit on target. Cracking at the seams and in denial about his mental scarring, a long-suffering and wounded Kyle tries to uphold the same stoicism his father passed down to him through a metaphor about sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. His therapist asks, “You ever think that you might have seen things or done some things over there that you wish you hadn’t?” Cooper replies, “Oh no, that’s not me.” When PTSD really does start to hit Kyle, it’s all the more tragic because he’s been refusing to believe it’s been with him for so long. The poor guy has it bad, and he can’t admit it to himself although he is self-aware enough to know that he’s been affected by the war, carrying a mental anguish that he feels the need to save his brothers-in-arms from. Kyle’s PTSD and his aid to his discharged comrades are arguably more noteworthy than his confirmed kill count, I’d dispute at least. It’s unfortunate that Eastwood only dedicates the last 15 minutes of the movie to these segments, and even then, only does he ever scratch the surface of the makings of what could have made “American Sniper” truly a resonating film above the rest. Most of Kyle’s heroics with vets on the homefront are bookended or omitted entirely.
It’s at least better than 2013’s “Lone Survivor,” another interesting story based on real-life hero Marcus Luttrell turned into a heavy handed, jingoistic “Call of Duty”-resembling picture that came troublingly close to glorifying war and fetishzing violence. You don’t have to be a troop-hating, America-disrespecting scumbag to see that, but what can anyone expect when we have directors from such acclaimed works as “Battleship” directing our war films? The notion of someone’s service, suffering, and trauma becoming a form of throwaway entertainment is a real shame. “Lone Survivor,” the film, only perpetuates the myth that war is an action flick where you get to jump off rocks with your buddies while huge, theatrical-looking explosions go off in the background making you look like pop-stars.
“American Sniper” has sufficient thematic merit to keep it from resembling a mindless videogame, and it has scenes with enough emotional punch that hopefully some troops will find solace in. It also helps that the combat is realistically shot. Perhaps it’s not as tastefully done as the incredibly authentic raid sequence in the 2012 apolitical-near masterpiece “Zero Dark Thirty,” but in no way is it trigger-happy, romanticized nonsense.
Perhaps whoever edited the teaser trailer for “American Sniper” would’ve done a better job directing and assembling the film. Eastwood is a passionless director. This is all the more unfortunate since it’s apparent this is a huge passion project for Cooper and nearly everyone that knew Kyle. Eastwood has no intention of making an “art” film, only a movie. Like all of his recent films, the delivery of the dialogue from his actors, with the exception of Cooper, is oddly stilted. Some of the actors spitting military lingo sound like early teens who have learned to curse for the first time. Part of the reason for this is Eastwood’s unwillingness to shoot more than one take for each scene. I’m sure Warner Brothers is loving him for saving money on that front, but he never allows his cast to get some convincing back-and-forth rhythm going. The consequence of such neglectfulness on Eastwood’s part is a horrible performance on behalf of Sienna Miller as Taya Kyle, Kyle’s wife. I’m sure Miller is a good actress, but she couldn’t generate any genuine emotion likely due to the expedited shooting schedule. I wonder if audiences are even supposed to like her character. Her opening lines to a SEAL before darting towards the exit to puke her guts out from alcohol over-exposure involve her swearing, saying that SEALs can lie, cheat, and do whatever they want. Say what you will about this piece, whether readers find some of it offensive or not, I would never say anything that resembled such viciousness to a serviceman. Trust me, I’m forever grateful to live in a country that doesn’t behead my family, put a gun in my hand, and make me a soldier at a very early age.
“American Sniper” is an enjoyable, albeit frustrating experience. This is me at my most critical as a result of wanting to rave about this film. It’s a movie that will ruminate in my head for what it could have been, rather than what it turned out to be. 2014’s superior American war film is David Ayer’s WWII tank drama “Fury.” If audiences were expecting a film focusing on PTSD with “American Sniper,” they’re better off checking out “Brothers” (2009), “The Messenger” (2009), “Jarhead” (2005), and Michael Cimino’s classic “The Deer Hunter” (1978). Someday they might make another Chris Kyle biopic, and it will be unfortunate that Bradley Cooper won’t be at the forefront of it. Chris Kyle was, without a doubt, a complex person. This is hardly a complex or challenging film, but it’s one worth seeing, if only to witness promising and brief snippets of what could have been an extraordinary film about one of America’s most extraordinary soldiers. In its boldest moments, it manages to capture what is both honorable and dangerous about being persuaded by American myth.
Rob Gabe is a fourth-year student majoring in communication studies. He can be reached at RG770214@wcupa.edu.