ReThink Review: American Sniper -- Can There Be Heroes on the Wrong Side of History?

If you've followed my reviews for these years, you know that one of my biggest pet peeves in American films (and America in general) is our unhealthy, dangerous worship of soldiers, where every American soldier is considered a hero who defends American freedom even if they did nothing heroic, America's freedom was never at risk, and the real reasons for waging the war were far from noble. All of this results in unquestioning, knee-jerk, bipartisan public support for any American war, regardless of the war's justness or logic, where critics of those wars are accused of desiring the deaths of American soldiers. For some strange reason, I thought American Sniper, based on the book and true story of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, might somehow be different. But with conservative Clint Eastwood directing, American Sniper continues America's worship of soldiers and our obsession with guns in a film that ignores the fact that the Iraq war in which Kyle fought is arguably the worst debacle in American history. Watch a clip from American Sniper below.

Bradley Cooper, who also produced American Sniper, plays Chris Kyle, a Texan whose father installs a savior complex in Chris as a child that makes him believe that his purpose in life is to defend others (meaning other Americans). Outraged by attacks against Americans overseas, Kyle joins the Navy SEALs and uses his natural gift for sharpshooting to become a sniper. After the 9/11 attacks, Kyle is deployed to Iraq, where he claims his primary goal is to protect the lives of American soldiers, whether it's picking enemies off from a distance or leading Marines doing house searches. We then watch as Kyle returns home and then back to Iraq on multiple tours, ignoring the symptoms of PTSD he's exhibiting, the fact that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, and the protests of his wife (Siena Miller) who is left to raise their two young kids alone while living in constant fear for her husband's safety.

American Sniper is competently made. Cooper gives a nicely natural and understated performance as Kyle, with him being humble and effacing while others are eager to do the praising. The action scenes are sufficiently tense, though I would've liked to know more about the special training snipers receive to mold their minds and bodies for such a specialized task instead of the film's more typical gunfight scenes that are similar to those found in nearly every military action movie.

And that's about all of the good things I have to say about American Sniper. So now let me get into what I dislike about this movie and why its six Oscar nominations are as regrettable as the five nominations earned by 2012's Zero Dark Thirty, a film that lied not only about the efficacy and morality of torture, but in the role torture played in locating Osama bin Laden. There are some spoilers here, unless you already know what happened to the real Chris Kyle.

Kyle as portrayed in American Sniper is a character with little or no emotional arc. He maintains the same naïve, simplistic beliefs throughout his life in the existence of evil and his role as a uniquely violent protector against it as he did when his hardass father rather menacingly imposes the idea on him as a child. Kyle serves four tours in Iraq, witnessing all the horrors of war, but his views on war, his role in it, and killing people do not seem to change him at all. He does not seem haunted by any of his over 160 confirmed kills and states outright that he has absolutely no regrets about any of them aside from the targets that got away. Throughout the film, he maintains zero empathy for or understanding of the Iraqi people and repeatedly refers to Iraqis and anyone he's fighting as "savages", which is gross, ignorant, and racist. With all he experiences -- and despite seemingly having PTSD, which he seems to conquer by toughing it out without any real treatment -- Kyle ends the movie as the same affable, soft-spoken, gun-loving guy with a savior complex he was at the start of the movie, despite having killed hundreds of people.

All that may be faithful to what Kyle was like in real life. But in the stories we love, the main characters usually go through some kind of journey or experience where they gain insights about the world, humanity, or themselves that changes them forever. But in American Sniper, the only thing that changes about Kyle is that he finally understands that his wife needs him at home and will divorce him if he doesn't stop leaving her to raise their kids alone, and that he can help American soldiers without killing people. Other than that, Kyle is completely unchanged, with his war experience simply confirming everything he believed about himself and the nature of war that he thought before he had ever fought in one, apparently never regretting, questioning, or even dwelling on the morality and rightness of anything he did or the war itself.

And that's a big reason why American Sniper lost me for good.

While we rightly admire people who make great sacrifices for a just, worthy cause, Kyle was fighting in the Iraq war, probably the biggest foreign policy clusterfuck in American history, and arguably one of the worst fuckups by any government ever. We invaded and occupied a country based on utter lies -- or, to be generous, an incomprehensibly massive intelligence failure -- directly and indirectly causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, destabilizing the entire region, wrecking America's image and legitimacy around the world, costing American taxpayers trillions of dollars, and turning us into a country that lies about torture, then endorses and commits it unapologetically.

That leads me to the key issue I have with soldier worship and American Sniper specifically: Should a soldier be celebrated as a hero for serving bravely while fighting on the wrong side of history in a war that is neither just, moral, or even legal? Is it possible to be heroic in the act of committing a crime by saving the lives of the criminals? Because what Chris Kyle was doing was "protecting" American soldiers who were part of the illegal occupation of a sovereign country based on the thoroughly debunked lies that Iraq was involved in the 9/11 attacks, possessed weapons of mass destruction they would give to terrorists, and that occupying Iraq would prevent terrorist attacks elsewhere. Kyle's father explains to him that there are three types of people in the world, and that Chris is a "sheepdog" given "the gift of aggression" to protect the naïve and helpless "sheep" from the evil "wolves" who "use violence to prey on the weak." As we watch Kyle and a group of Marines bust down a family's door and point guns at the heads of women and children, could Kyle have once entertained the notion that who the "wolves" and the "sheepdogs" are might be perceived differently from the wrong end of a rifle?

I'm guessing a lot of people would say that a soldier's heroism has nothing to do with the so-called "politics" of the war he's fighting in, and that what makes a soldier like Chris Kyle a hero isn't that he was fighting in a just war for a good cause (since he wasn't), but that his actions saved the lives of his fellow soldiers. But if we accept the definition that a soldier who kills his enemies to protect his comrades is a hero, should we call Mustafa, the Syrian sniper depicted in the film as Kyle's nemesis (though barely mentioned in Kyle's book), a hero for protecting his fellow fighters from American troops? Don't all soldiers on any side of every war attempt to save and protect their comrades? Or as Seth Rogen noted, what about the fictional Nazi sharpshooter Fredrick Zoller in Quentin Tarantino's World War II film Inglourious Basterds, who Germans in the film consider an inspiring war hero for singlehandedly killing 200 Allied soldiers, and is even the subject of his own movie celebrating his skill, bravery, and commitment? If the "politics" of the side of the war you're fighting on are truly irrelevant, wouldn't we call a real-life Zoller a hero for saving the lives of countless Nazis soldiers?

Now before anyone says that I'm calling Chris Kyle a Nazi, I'm not. What I'm saying is that when it comes to calling people war heroes, fighting on the wrong side of history trumps whatever you do in service of that wrong side, regardless of the skill or bravery it required. The Germans know this, which is why you won't find any war memorials in Germany celebrating the accomplishments of "heroic" Nazi soldiers who protected their comrades by aiding in the defeat of Allied soldiers. And I suspect those who claim that the "politics" of a war have no bearing on a soldier's heroism also know this, which is why you'll never hear them call anyone who has ever fought against American troops a hero, regardless of their skill, patriotism, bravery, or lethality.

Contrary to what people like Kyle think, good and evil are rarely absolutes, especially in war, and determining which is which more often comes down to the perspective from the side you're on and the clarity that hopefully comes with experience, knowledge, and time. However, these are nuances Kyle seems incapable of acknowledging, never wavering in his belief that he and his fellow Americans are unequivocally the righteous good guys while anyone fighting against them is an evil savage. But when pressed, I think that nearly everyone, whether conservative or liberal, would agree that there are no heroes on the wrong side of history. And it has become nearly impossible to claim that George W. Bush's deceitful war of choice in Iraq was not a quest to free the Iraqi people, but was nothing less than a shameful, costly, unnecessary tragedy.

So what are we to make of American Sniper's Oscar nominations and its record-breaking success at the box office? Regarding the nominations, I think it points to how deep and bipartisan America's soldier worship goes, where even liberal Hollywood wants to celebrate a soldier who killed hundreds in service of a lie and a crime as long as he seems like a likable person. Second, it exemplifies America's obsession with guns, where I'm sure gun nuts couldn't watch American Sniper without creaming their pants and dreaming of the day when they'll be able to kill someone with moral and legal impunity as Kyle did, which is also one of the fantasies at the heart of "stand your ground" and "castle doctrine" laws.

And third, it shows how desperate many Americans, and especially conservatives, are to find any silver lining about the Iraq war. Even though a recent poll showed that more than half of all Republicans and nearly 40 percent of all Americans continue to believe the lie that the US found active WMDs in Iraq, it's becoming increasingly difficult for anyone to feel that the war was worth fighting and that it achieved any goals worth the money, effort, and lives it cost. For Americans who believe that the US is always right, noble, and unbeatable, accepting the harsh truth about our occupation of Iraq would shake them to their core.

But instead of an indictment of those who deceived us into invading Iraq and a soul-searching examination of why Americans supported the war for so long, we get the lionization of Chris Kyle, who is simply another color of lipstick applied to the stinking pig that is the Iraq war. Instead of dealing with the tragic reality of a war based on lies, we're supposed to celebrate a guy who either believed the lies, never cared about the truth, or convinced himself that all of the killing he did was simply the noble defense of the innocent instead of being a part of an illegal occupation that destroyed a country. In my lifetime, the US has never fought a war where America's safety or way of life was ever at risk, so let's dispense with the oft-used falsehood that I owe soldiers serving now for my ability to live my life and write this. Repeating a lie and believing it with all your heart doesn't make it true, and you don't get points for standing up for your beliefs if your beliefs are not only wrong, but destructive and counterproductive.

There's a feeling that, after the surprise of American Sniper's six Oscar nominations, a lot of Academy members are now taking a closer look at the film and the disturbing implications of honoring such a film and person, similar to what eventually happened with Zero Dark Thirty, which was a Best Picture frontrunner that faded late in its bid as its claims about the efficacy of torture and how it was integral to finding Osama bin Laden were debunked at the highest levels in a film whose main character, in a just world, would be convicted as a war criminal.

I see soldier worship as harmful because it so easily morphs into support for wars, no matter how unjust, by letting our affection for our fellow citizens in uniform and our desire to see them come home alive obscure the truth behind what they're supposedly fighting and dying for, which is rarely as black and white as we are told or wish it to be. But this is exactly what American Sniper does and what makes it such an empty, misleading, but apparently effective piece of jingoistic pro-war propaganda. There are no heroes on the wrong side of history, but you can trick people into thinking there are by lying about the history or claiming that history doesn't matter. By inferring that invading Iraq was the correct response to 9/11 and that the most important thing about the war was protecting American soldiers while ignoring the lies that put those soldiers in danger in the first place, Chris Kyle and the makers of American Sniper seem to have done both. And bullshit like that doesn't deserve awards.

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