am sniper

The Character of American Sniper

american-sniper-poster-2American Sniper is one of perhaps three films* that I’ve seen all year which profoundly capture the pure essence of an individual.

Everything about it is distilled through the singular goal of telling the story of Chris Kyle, “America’s most lethal sniper”, during his four tours as a Navy SEAL in the Iraq War. Kyle is a man who I would have had almost nothing in common with either on an intellectual level or even simply as a matter of personality.

Yet through the phenomenal directing by Clint Eastwood, and the masterful portrayal by Bradley Cooper, I came out of the theater deeply understanding the character of Chris Kyle. Who he was as a human being; what he believed; why he believed it… And yet at no point did the film make any heavy-handed push for me to agree with the way he saw the world. That’s a trait that is nearly impossible to achieve as a director and speaks to Eastwood’s absolute mastery as a filmmaker.

In a recent interview with The Star, Eastwood explained his point of view:

This picture was interesting, because I’m seeing it from the point of a person who was sort of an American hero, as far as his ability to be this ultra-sniper. And his family and his beliefs were very strong about defending the country and defending the guys who are defending the country, as a sort of an oversight warrior. It was an important story, but you have to embrace his philosophy if you’re going to tell a story about him.”

It was a beautiful character study, and I think that Eastwood’s empathy toward the story he was telling is precisely what made it so incredibly effective as a film. It was also the most packed my local theater has been in a long while. American Sniper has already been hugely successful at the box-office, but it’s also generated more than its share of controversy and debate.

This shouldn’t be surprising. The nature of the film itself basically guarantees that it will become a political Rorschach for a lot of people. It’s anSienna Miller as Taya Kyle incredibly personal look at the experiences and upbringing that shaped the kind of person Chris Kyle would become, and it chronicles the kinds of horrifying things he (supposedly) did as a Navy SEAL, all told largely without judgement. By viewing the subject through a magnifying glass, Eastwood leaves every bit of broader interpretation about the context surrounding Kyle’s actions up to the audience.

So if you’re super gung-ho about the Iraq & Afghanistan wars, and believe that the War on Terror is a morally righteous defense of a free society against zealous extremists, then seeing Chris Kyle kill a lot of “enemy combatants” is going to be awesome for you. If you’re not a fan of those (or any) wars, you might spend a lot of time thinking about the terrible broader issues instead, and lament Kyle’s role in mass violence. Or you might, as a lot of people have done, even claim that the film is simply Jingoistic propaganda.

That said, I tend to think that last option would be seriously missing the point.

If you look at what’s actually in the movie, you’d note that the only discussion of the broader context is by people who are upset by it, or think it’s pointless. Chris Kyle’s own brother – a much less decorated infantryman – says, “Fuck this place.” The only person who sees his job in stark black and white seems to be Chris Kyle himself, and that takes a pretty severe toll on his family and his mental health. It certainly doesn’t do a lot to make war look anything less than intensely terrible.

And for what it’s worth, Clint Eastwood isn’t actually supporter of war and has confirmed my reading of the film, saying:

“The biggest antiwar statement any film [can make is to show] the fact of what [war] does to the family and the people who have to go back into civilian life like Chris Kyle did.”

So I really think that the film and its director are too complex to simply label American Sniper a “propaganda” film. Though it is likely to reinforce whatever idea audiences have about America and the military going in, and for a lot of conservatives in particular, their idea is that Chris Kyle was a superhero saving American lives in a just war against true evil.

One of the greatest living directors.This, of course, is rather disconcerting to the anti-war crowd.

However, on a deeper level, I suspect that what makes anti-war folks nervous about the movie isn’t that conservatives like it (is there anything shocking about that fact?), but rather that it just doesn’t offer a blatantly negative message about the war itself at all. For some people, any film that doesn’t take an overt stand against war is unacceptably apologetic. But speaking as an active long-term critic of the War on Terror, I actually want more anti-war activists to see films like American Sniper, if for no other reason than to gain a better understanding of what people like Chris Kyle actually believe.

There’s a tendency to write off people in the military as brainless; evil; inhuman; or duped by “propaganda”, and not as people who could possibly hold genuine beliefs that what they’re doing is good.

I think that’s a mistake.

For one thing, there are clearly a ton of people who share those beliefs, and it’s impossible to talk to them or get them to even give a different set of ideas a shot without first understanding where they’re coming from. For another, people like Chris Kyle are actually serious about what they think, and it’s not actually obviously inarguable that they’re wrong.

Bradley Cooper at his best.There’s a key theme of the film stated in a bit with Kyle’s father, where he says that there are 3 types of people in the world – “sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs”. The sheep want to believe evil doesn’t exist. The wolves are the evil. And the sheepdogs are people blessed with the “gift” of defensive aggression who live to confront the wolves and protect the sheep. This is a concept that I believe originated with Dave Grossman, a retired Lieutenant Colonel of the US Army, and author of the book, “On Killing”. And maybe there’s some truth to the idea.

No matter what you think about the concept, however, Chris Kyle definitely did believe in it.

And given the brutally violent stakes in play, the one thing that always matters most is correctly assessing who the “wolves” really are. If you blindly believe that the “wolves” are anyone in the outgroup, or anyone the government says is the bad guy, you’re doing it wrong. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who do exactly that. One of those guys seems to have been Chris Kyle, and American Sniper revealed the character of that kind of person as well as any film I’ve ever seen.

Eastwood should be celebrated by the anti-war movement for granting us a deep look at the kind of person who is capable of making warfare his avocation, not hated for daring to show Chris Kyle as he probably saw himself.

Watch the trailer:

*The other two films are Birdman and Whiplash, which are both among the best films ever made.

Sean Malone

Sean Malone is a producer at Citizen A Media, a creative media production company based in Washington, DC.

  • Andrew Leigh

    Superb article, Mr. Malone, best take on American Sniper I’ve read.

    Haven’t seen Birdman yet, but have seen Whiplash. Decent movie, yes. “Among the best films ever made”? You gotta get out more, man!

    • seanwmalone

      Hey man… I see everything. And they’re both Oscar contenders in major categories, so it’s not that big an exaggeration. I have probably spent more time talking about and thinking about Whiplash than anything else I have seen this year.

      Note: I have two music degrees and played drums & vibraphone in jazz ensembles the whole way through, so I may identify with Miles Teller’s character more literally than anyone else I have seen in ages.