Patriotism is a funny thing. I remember when I was a kid (couldn’t have been more than 10 years old), I asked my dad why it seemed like nobody in this country seemed patriotic anymore. This was, of course, before September 11th. I loved history as a kid, especially military, and I was confused seeing these depictions of America earlier in the century. I read about a country that completely rallied around the flag and joined together to unquestioningly support America and freedom. Where did this go and how do we get it back? My dad didn’t really have an answer for me (he probably doesn’t even remember the conversation). It was a pretty stupid question in retrospect. I was too young to realize that maybe the view of my country as seen in history books wasn’t the entire story; that things in life aren’t always so black and white.
American Sniper is a movie that believes in the patriotism that I read about in those history books; that we think exists as children. Patriotism that is black and white, America is always right, our enemies are always wrong.
The film, directed by Clint Eastwood, tells the story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, a man claimed to be the deadliest sniper in American military history. Kyle racked up over 160 confirmed kills during his 4 tours in Iraq. Once he came home he was haunted by those soldiers he couldn’t save and decided to devote his time to those veterans suffering from the effects of the war. In 2013 one of those vets, a marine suffering from PTSD shot and killed Chris Kyle (It doesn’t count as spoilers if it happened in real life). This isn’t a movie that really focuses on the last parts of Kyle’s life, however. We spend most of our time with Chris Kyle the soldier. The movie spends about as much time with Kyle’s family life as he does.
Kyle isn’t a very complicated man. He’s a good ole’ Texas boy who loves to hunt and was raised by his father to protect those in need. He wanted to be a cowboy, but after the US embassy bombings in ’98 decides that he has a duty to protect his country and enlists in the Navy. Kyle doesn’t waste his time thinking about if what they’re doing in Iraq is right or just. In fact, when one of his fellow soldiers is killed, Kyle suggests that it was because that man was doubting their cause that got him killed; that even allowing that thought to enter your mind is a path to death. All that Chris Kyle worries about is killing the bad guys and protecting Americans.
Bradley Cooper absolutely transforms himself into this character and is the best part of this movie. Taking on a Texas accent and always talking with a thick wad of dip tucked under his lower lip, Cooper is Chris Kyle. There’s a subtlety to the performance as well. Kyle is a man of bravado, who rarely talks about what he’s feeling or thinking. Throughout the film, Cooper’s performance hints at the problems under the skin as the terrors of war take their hold on Kyle. Even near the end of the film as Kyle says that he doesn’t regret a single shot that he took. That his only regrets are the people he wasn’t able to save. Coopers read of the line made me feel as if there was a slight hint of doubt behind these words, whether Chris Kyle felt that way or not. It’s a masterful performance.
The direction by Clint Eastwood isn’t bad, it’s just kind of lazy. He doesn’t really try to do anything special with the film. It’s kind of a “set camera up here, have actors talk in front of it” kind of fare. He doesn’t seem to want to be bothered to do anything interesting with the camera. This combined with the weird structure of the film where we go back and forth between deployment and home four times, makes the movie seem longer than it’s already lengthy 2 hours and 10 minutes run time.
However, the main problems I have with American Sniper are not what it does, but what it doesn’t do. Chris Kyle’s murder occurred during the script writing process for this movie, but it’s clear that it didn’t change the direction the film was going to take. Kyle’s acknowledgement of his PTSD and his work with other suffering veterans is stuffed into the last 10 minutes of an already overly long movie. His death is relegated to a title card at the close of the film. In my opinion this is a serious misstep. Chris Kyle, who was so blindly driven to protect the men he served that it almost cost him his marriage, his life and his sanity, was ultimately murdered by one of the very men he wanted to protect. This event colors every previous event before that moment with a different shade, a fact which American Sniper completely ignores.
There is a great movie to be made about the life of Chris Kyle. A movie that focuses more on the effects the war had on him; that deals with the controversy surrounding the man. A movie that treats Kyle as if he’s a person and not just an ideology. A movie that discusses the seriousness of PTSD and our government’s long history of ignoring both the effects it has on our soldiers, as well as our sad history of mistreatment of Veterans in general. American Sniper is not that movie. It’s much more interested in showing us how evil the bad guys were and how many ‘savages’ Chris Kyle shot.
American Sniper isn’t a bad movie, but it’s not very good either. I think the direction is lazy, the editing fails to hold any sort of tension, and the script misses opportunities to tell a deeper, more impacting story. Most importantly though, I think it gets patriotism wrong. It’s the sort of flag waving idealism that we were taught about as children and read in history textbooks. Idealism that rejects any criticism of war, our role in it, and refuses to look at our soldiers as anything other than heroes. Supporting our troops doesn’t mean refusing to examine them critically as human beings who have issues and make mistakes. Being a patriot doesn’t mean blindly supporting our country regardless of the circumstances around it’s actions. We can do better. And we should.