I had no intention of writing about American Sniper. Other film scholars, including my friend and Clint Eastwood expert, James Curnow have discussed it. And even more people, scholars and laymen alike, have weighed in on the various controversies swirling around this extremely popular movie. Is it accurate? What does it say about America, about foreign policy, about guns? Can you praise it without being called a fascist? Can you criticize it without being branded a commie? There are clearly many differing points of view on the subjects of snipers and Chris Kyle.
Then I read a remarkable interview with screenwriter Jason Hall in Time Magazine.
Before I get to that, let me make this perfectly clear. I never knew Chris Kyle. All I actually do know about him comes from the gallons of internet type I have read in the past week. And I would suggest that when it comes to internet type, words are cheap and truth is scarce. I know that Kyle fought for his country, which speaks to his heroism. I know he has been branded a liar. I know that men are capable of being both hero and liar at the same time. I will not be writing about Chris Kyle because I cannot. I will be writing about a movie based on his life, directed by one man, Clint Eastwood, and starring another, Bradley Cooper. Praise or criticism about the movie or the movie character should not be misconstrued as praise or criticism of the real man.
That said, the movie American Sniper is quite good. Its action scenes are effective. It moves efficiently between war and peace. It captures the camaraderie, the energy and the terror present in any military struggle. But it is not a great movie for two main reasons. (WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD)
The ending, in which we learn that Kyle was murdered by one of the former soldiers he was trying to help readjust to life after military service, was a sizable letdown. Granted, this real-life event posed significant artistic problems for Eastwood and Hall. Kyle's murder occurred just as Hall was completing his first draft. One of the things Hall has mentioned in interviews is that he did not want to subject Kyle's son to his own father's death on screen. As benevolent an ambition as that may be, it doesn't work. It leaves an enormous hole at the end of the movie. Difficult as it may have been, it was incumbent on Eastwood and Hall to devise a way to end this movie that effectively dramatized that murder. It did not have to be graphic. It did not have to make a political statement. But by abdicating the artistic responsibility at the end, the filmmakers have opened up the film to many reasonable questions. Chris Kyle, and his friend Chad Littlefield, died from gunshot wounds. An upcoming trial will determine whether former Marine Eddie Ray Routh is legally guilty of the murders, but the fact that he shot and killed both men is indisputable. If you think the murder of America's most prolific sniper at the hands of a disturbed war vet is not dramatically, morally and intellectually significant, perhaps we should end our discussion right here. It is pure dramatic dynamite, and though I understand Hall's reservations, it was his job to figure out a way to incorporate it.
Endings, even unsatisfying ones, rarely make or break a movie. The more serious problem with American Sniper as a dramatic story is that Chris Kyle is never wrong. Not when it comes to pulling the trigger. If you saw the trailers for this movie, you may have been struck by an extraordinary piece of film. Kyle has his rifle trained on a mother and her young son as they approach a team of Marines. Their actions are suspicious but Kyle cannot be sure of their intentions. The clip shows him communicating with a superior who is advising him on whether or not to shoot. No one else can confirm what Kyle sees. The choice to shoot is his. His spotter tells him they will fry him if he is wrong. This is absolutely riveting material. In all the analysis of why American Sniper opened as big as it did, defying all predictions, I didn't hear anyone mention this sensational sequence. I would have bought a ticket for this scene alone.
In the movie, this event takes place rather early. These will be Kyle's first two kills. He is protecting his fellow soldiers from these enemy combatants who are attempting to throw a grenade at them. Kyle sees the grenade, then pulls the trigger. Both mother and son attempt to throw the weapon and both are killed. Later, Kyle will face a similar decision when another young boy attempts to pick up a rocket launcher and fire it at Marines. The device is too big for the boy and he never gets it into immediate firing position. Kyle watches, not firing, as the boy drops the weapon and runs off.
What these scenes do -- indeed, what all of the scenes of Kyle firing or not firing his weapon do -- is flirt with the moral ambiguity of warfare without ever directly confronting it. He must display great patience and restraint, but in the end he always knows that the kills are righteous. And we know it too. That's one reason so many people love this movie. But tell me, assuming all best intentions, is that really the way wars are prosecuted in the 21st century? I can't say what is true for Chris Kyle. It is entirely possible that he only killed enemy combatants who posed an immediate threat to U.S. forces. But that is only half the question. Assuming Kyle did show the restraint and judgment to ensure no innocents were killed, is it possible that he never then waited too long, and did not take a legitimate shot when he might have? Is it possible that he never erred on either side of this incredibly tenuous tightrope? That is the biggest single problem I had with American Sniper. The murkiness of war, even a righteous war, is never really on display because we are reassured that every step the hero takes is the right one. Even if this were somehow true of Chris Kyle, it does not necessarily work for the movie. And remember, this is a movie. This is not what really happened.
Which brings me back to screenwriter Jason Hall. One of the stories Hall tells in the Time Magazine interview concerns a fight he had with a Marine (most likely drunk) following Kyle's funeral. The Marine took exception to Hall's refusal to drink and it led to a physical confrontation. Actually, four physical confrontations. In the end, both men were bleeding. And in the end, they hugged.
Things can appear vastly different depending on the perspective you carry into the room with you. To a stereotypical man's man, such a trial by muscle might seem perfectly acceptable. Even essential. Hall stood up, held his own, and was rewarded. But I couldn't help thinking that had I been in Hall's place -- me, a 5'8", 175 pound man with bursitis in my right knee and a left shoulder prone to dislocation -- I may not have fought the Marine. If I had, it almost certainly wouldn't have lasted very long or ended in a stalemate. My point of view, my right to have my point of view without being beaten to a pulp, would have vanished. These are the actions of a bully. Fortunately for Hall, he had enough muscle to stand up to a bully, and therefore is wearing his story as a badge of honor.
All cultures need their heroes. Brave men and women of great strength and skill who are willing to sacrifice for the greater good. Especially since 9/11/2001, Americans desperately want to believe that we have moral protectors like Chris Kyle who can save us from the evil in the world. The perspective that writer and director carry into the fictionalized version of Chris Kyle in the movie called American Sniper doesn't seem to allow for the likelihood that having the greatest skill with the biggest gun automatically and erroneously makes your position moral by shutting up anyone who might have a different point of view.