I like a good action movie and I like Clint Eastwood movies and so I went to see American Sniper. I also had a personal interest: decades earlier in Vietnam, I'd interviewed America's top sniper -- a dead-eyed killer nicknamed Papa Leech -- when I was investigating fragging as a journalist. Mr. "Leech" wasn't the kind of guy who would be played by Bradley Cooper -- he told me that he was thinking of becoming a hitman for the Mafia after he left the military (a dream that was heartlessly snatched away as he was killed by his own men before he left Vietnam). Back then, the American military wouldn't publicly confirm that we had sniper units because they were in a grey area under the Geneva Convention. How times have changed!
My first reaction to the movie was similar to Matt Taibbi's recently published evisceration in Rolling Stone -- that the movie was an appallingly simple-minded embodiment of an obtuse, morally bankrupt mindset that has led the U.S. to perpetually look for the next Vietnam without absorbing the lessons of the last one. Then, as things go bad, we once again scratch our heads as to why our vast firepower and technological superiority couldn't win the day. In the movie,
Chris Kyle's motivation for putting his life on the line as a sniper in Iraq was to avenge 9/11, and to bring the fight there so that he wouldn't be fighting in San Diego. He's never presented as a brain surgeon, but I would have thought that at some point during his four tours of duty, he might have come across at least one of the credible reports documenting that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11; or, as he saw the countless civilians radicalized by the immense collateral damage of the war, wondered whether our actions in Iraq were creating recruits for Al Queda, and making it more likely that terrorism would some day come to San Diego. Apparently not.
That was my first reaction. Then, as I thought more about the movie, I wondered whether Mr. Eastwood was attempting something sly and subtle. By now, most people who will watch the film know that Bin Laden's crew were largely Saudi; they know that Saddam Hussein did not have the wherewithal to attack San Diego; and they are aware of the metastasis of ISIL, which could be described as the evil spawn of the wars in Iraq and Syria, and which does seem hell-bent on bringing the battle to the West. Eastwood certainly knows this; maybe he felt that viewers now know enough that they can draw their own conclusions if the story is simply told.
You can't watch the film, for instance, without noting that despite being overwhelmingly overmatched, the Iraqi irregulars are willing to die for their cause, whatever that is (you won't find out by watching this film). Yes, the Iraqi adversary in one city, "The Butcher," is presented as being almost cartoonishly cruel, but there is also a scene in which a kid contemplates picking up and launching a grenade launcher after its handler is killed by Kyle. The scene is meant to illustrate that Kyle has moral compunctions about shooting a kid, but it's hard to watch that scene and not wonder about the level of hatred against American troops that would prompt a kid to even consider picking up the weapon. There are many other scenes in the movie that make you wonder about the awesome idiocy of that war.
The film also allows us to make our own judgments about sniping. One scene shows Mustafa, Kyle's mirror image, leaving his beautiful wife to rush off to fight after getting a call that Americans are in the area. In the narrative of the film, Mustafa is a bad guy, but many viewers will wonder what makes him bad if Kyle is good? Several tearful scenes on the home front as Kyle signs up for yet another tour make it quite clear that the American sniper vastly prefers killing people in faraway places to being home with the wife and kids.
American Sniper also subtly suggests that even Kyle knew that there was something unsavory about shooting people from a concealed and relatively safe position. In one scene, he puts down his sniper rifle and picks up an automatic weapon to join a group of marines going house to house. When his spotter balks at leaving the safety of their hideout, he all but accuses him of cowardice if he does not join Kyle in this real fighting.
I'm probably giving Hollywood too much credit, but it's possible that the makers were attempting something similar to the send up of militarism in Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers, which on one level is a very well made SciFi adventure about the defense of the planet from a race of giant alien insects, while on another, it deftly skewers the mindless jingoism, empty slogans and mass hysteria that incite the clean-cut, best and brightest of any society to rush off to war. For this interpretation of American Sniper to be believed, we have to assume that Hollywood embraces subtlety and that viewers have done some critical thinking about events of the past 15 years. Perhaps a stretch on both counts, but wouldn't it be nice if it were so?