Pathological patriotism: 'American Sniper' paints a portrait of a deadly sniper unencumbered with critical thinking
PHOTO BY WARNER BROS.
Where is it playing?: Movies Lompoc, Parks Plaza
What's it rated?: R
What's it worth?: $6.50
What's it worth?: $9.00
Nominated for Best Picture at the 2015 Academy Awards, American Sniper stars Bradley Cooper as Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, whose memoir is the basis for this film directed by Clint Eastwood. Kyle is credited with being the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history, and his memoir chronicles his four tours of Iraq duty as well as his difficult transition back to civilian life when he returns to his wife (Sienna Miller) and children. Additional Academy Award nominations include Actor in a Leading Role for Cooper; Film Editing for Joel Cox and Gary Roach; Sound Editing for Alan Robert Murray and Bub Asman; Sound Mixing for John Reitz, Gregg Rudloff, and Walt Martin; and Writing—Adapted Screenplay for Jason Hall. (132 min.)
Glen: If you’ve been following the ongoing debate about whether American Sniper is little more than jingoistic propaganda, I’m happy to report that it is more than jingoistic propaganda: It’s also a well-crafted film with affecting performances from its leads. Still, it’s jingoistic propaganda as well. There’s never any questioning of the validity of the Iraq war, never any attempt at understanding the Iraqi point of view. America is good and just, and the Iraqis are “savages.” The film is told wholly from Chris Kyle’s viewpoint, and he’s a red-blooded patriotic Texan incapable of questioning his country’s honor. In that regard, the film is an honest portrayal of this man and his war, focusing on the toll his four deployments took on him and his family. Kyle’s an honorable but flawed man, a product of his upbringing by a tough father who instills his worldview into this two kids: The world is filled with sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. Wolves prey on the sheep, but sheepdogs help save the sheep from the wolves, and his boys are not allowed to be sheep or wolves. This sense of duty leads Kyle to join the SEALs at 30 years old. He’s a remarkable man, both for his determination to succeed and his determination to never allow his thinking to be clouded by criticism or nuance.
Anna: Bradley Cooper gives a fantastic performance in this film as a no-nonsense cowboy who values nothing above God, country, and family. He loves his brother, Lone Star beer, and riding the rodeo. He decided to join the military in the pre-9/11 world after watching the news and learning of an attack on a U.S. Embassy. He chooses the Navy SEALs because it’s the toughest, most difficult placement he could go for. It’s very indicative of the person this man seems to be: hard working, dedicated, and unwilling to let himself take the easy road. He felt like something needed to be done, and why shouldn’t he be the one to do it? He did four tours, roughly 1,000 days of being deployed. He did this while his wife was pregnant, his children young, and yet his draw to go back, to do more, to save his guys outweighed his fear of losing his family or losing his life. He quickly earned a reputation and a nickname—“The Legend”—for his sniping abilities and is seen as a leader by those he works with. Did I admire this character? No, not particularly. He seems to have a blind patriotism that I find off-putting. But did I get a sense of who this man was, his character, determination, and ideals? Yes, absolutely, and I have Bradley Cooper’s performance to thank for that.
Glen: Judging from his “talking to an empty chair” right-wing politics, I’m not sure Clint Eastwood set out to paint a portrait of a man blinded by patriotism. I think a lot of people—Eastwood included—see Chris Kyle as a self-sacrificing hero, but the man reveled in his kills and never questioned the morality of invading a sovereign nation under false pretenses. His own loyalty was to his country and fellow soldiers, certainly not to critical thinking. To its credit, the film does an excellent job showing us how Chris Kyle became Chris Kyle. The film opens in Iraq with Kyle’s first target in sight: a young boy handed a Russian grenade by a woman. Should he pull the trigger? The film then cuts to the past, where we see Chris’s father praise his marksmanship after he fells a buck, we see Chris defend his brother from a schoolyard bully, we see Chris in the rodeo, we see him catch his cheating girlfriend and kick her out, and we see his reaction to a terrorist attack on an American embassy. After enduring the rigorous SEAL training, marriage, and deployment, we’re back to the moment of decision. I can’t imagine the psychic weight of such life-and-death choices—I’d guess it would be pretty unbearable—but Kyle doesn’t let himself get caught up in guilt or rumination. He’s a killer, a husband, a father, and he compartmentalizes these roles with ease. I find that more than a bit frightening.
Anna: I have to think that someone who could take on the task of murder has a deeply flawed sense of morality and justice. Yet Kyle is painted as a hero in this film. While I haven’t read his book, I get the sense that that isn’t a true likeness of the man. They seem to have polished him up, polished up the war in general. Every Iraqi is the enemy, the war is justified because why would we go to war without a good reason? While I did have some problems with this film, and I think that Eastwood made this man into too much of a hero, the gripping performances by Cooper and Miller make for an entertaining film. One performance I couldn’t stand was that of the two children when they were infants. Apparently Cooper will not work with real babies, so they had to use dolls. They were distracting and awkward and made me cringe. Luckily it was only two quick scenes I had to endure.
Split Screen is written by Sun contributor and New Times Staff Writer Glen Starkey and his wife, Anna. Comment at email@example.com.