War Movies 8: “American Sniper.”

Chris Kyle (1974-2013) had a rare talent at shooting, joined the Navy SEALS at the beginning of global terror’s war on us, did four tours in Iraq as a sniper, wrote a book about his experiences, and was killed by a disturbed military veteran he was trying to help.

Warner Brothers bought the movie rights to the book and signed Bradley Cooper to star. First, David Russell (“The Fighter” (2010), “Silver Linings Playbook” (2012), “American Hustle” (2013),) was going to direct; then Stephen Spielberg; and finally Clint Eastwood.[1]

Kyle’s father instructs his son on shooting and in manly conduct: “there are three kinds of people: sheep, wolves, and sheep dogs.” Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper) takes the message to heart. He is determined to use his skill to save the lives of endangered American troops in Iraq. A chance encounter with his younger brother, who had enlisted after 9/11, drives home the importance of this mission. The younger man is skittish and eager to be gone from Iraq. This sense of duty leads him to serve four tours in Iraq. He becomes a legend among the common soldiers and Marines. A dead insurgent plunges off a rooftop into the midst of an American patrol. An officer casually remarks “that’s the over-watch; you can thank him later.” Increasingly, Kyle becomes obsessed with an insurgent master sniper called “Mustafa.”[2] He returns for his final tour in hopes of killing Mustafa. He succeeds and comes home.

The price is very high: Cooper plays Kyle as “calm and confident,” so he doesn’t emote much about stress. He’s just increasingly distant, uncomfortable with the emotions of other people (both his wife’s and those of grateful veterans), with flashes of rage. Eventually, this self-contained man makes his way home by finding a new means to “save” fellow soldiers.

The movie has been criticized from the Left for de-contextualizing Kyle’s story. Eastwood portrays Kyle as motivated by the Al Qaeda attacks on the American embassies in East Africa and by 9/11; then the events in Iraq focus on the effort to kill Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. How the United States came to invade Iraq is scrupulously left out. The critics are mad that this wasn’t about the lies that led us to war. That would be a different movie. Indeed, it has been. Several times. All of which were flops. “Rendition” (2007, dir. Gavin Hood); “Lions for Lambs” (2007, dir. Robert Redford); “Redacted” (2007, dir. Brian de Palma); and “Green Zone” (2010, dir. Paul Greengrass) all lost money or fell short of earning expectations. That says something about audiences and what they’re willing to acknowledge. . In contrast, “American Sniper” is well over $200m in the black.

“American Sniper” falls into a different category of war movie from the ones that haven’t succeeded with American audiences. “The Hurt Locker” (2008, dir. Kathryn Bigelow) and “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012, dir. Kathryn Bigelow) became huge hits by focusing on driven individuals, the personal price they pay, and on the shameful American indifference to the human costs of wars waged by their country.   However, “American Sniper” ends on a different note than do Bigelow’s two movies. In her work, the protagonists (played by Jeremy Renner and Jessica Chastain) are lonely souls, estranged from their less-driven colleagues, cut off from home, and unknown to their fellow Americans. “American Sniper” ends with Kyle’s funeral procession across Texas. On a rainy day masses of people line the highway and the overpasses, fire-engine ladder trucks hoist huge American flags, Stetsons and baseball caps come off as the cortege passes. Eastwood is in his eighties. This may be his last movie. Hell of a way to go out.

[1] “American Sniper” (2014, dir. Clint Eastwood).

[2] It’s worth noting that the film portrays Mustafa (played by Sammy Sheikh—who has portraying evil Muslims down to a fine art) as an insurgent version of Kyle: skilled, committed, and with a family that is shut out of his work.

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