|American Sniper, meet American actor.|
Ever since seeing it on opening weekend, I've been vaguely troubled by uneasiness about the movie, for reasons that haven't been entirely clear to me. I've chalked it up to a kind of viewer's guilt—although I'd like to be a peace-loving pacifist, I found the movie exciting and well made, and like most viewers found myself rooting for a character who is an unabashed and unapologetic warrior with a prodigious number of notches on the stock of his McMillan TAC 338 rifle. My uneasiness was perhaps due my own internal conflict over rooting for a character whose actions have been pretty cold blooded.
But upon recently reading the source biography upon which the movie is based—the American Sniper book by Chris Kyle himself—I've a better understanding on why I have conflicting feelings about the film. It has more to do, I think, with the inappropriate or misplaced creative license Eastwood brings to the story.
Most of you know the story behind the book and movie. The title character, Chris Kyle, is a Navy-trained sniper with a certified kill total of more than 160 during several tours of duty in Iraq (there may be considerably more kills that aren't verified). Well after the book was published, Kyle was murdered by a disturbed veteran at a shooting range (the trial of this fellow is just now underway). A variety of other controversies surrounding Kyle have come to light in the years since the book was published.
What is startling about the book is the dearth of self-awareness and critical thought on the part of Kyle himself. This is quite simply a memoir recounting his most dramatic kills, with not much in the way of political or moral consideration or self reflection. Kyle is a fairly flat human being as he self-portrays himself with substantial bravado. Yet beyond his self-portrayal, there must of course be a man of complicated nature. In a self-proclaimed redneck who boasts 200 sniper kills (about 160 of which are confirmed by the Department of Defense) there must be more than meets the eye. What in the world drives such a person? How do they come to terms with such a duty? Can you, for example, imagine yourself drawing bead through scope of a high-powered sniper rifle on an unsuspecting person, then squeezing the trigger and watching the explosion of blood? 160 times?
|It is very, very hard to defend this guy.|
But Jesse Ventura, former pro wrester,
state governor, and terrible actor,
was truly and illegally
maligned by Chris Kyle.
One can only wonder what drives a character who has already been documented as a bona-fide military hero to then invent more fictional events to further expand his legend. It suggests a substantial level of insecurity. And this is a man, after all, so in love with war and killing and the subsequent hero-worship it earned him, that he ignored his family to return to Iraq several times. Now that is a complicated man.
Cut to the movie itself, where Eastwood has chosen to focus on, and even exaggerate, the heroic aspects of Kyle's view of himself, and to even create heroic explanations that aren't supported by the book itself.
The director could well have chosen a more objective portray of the full complexity of the American Sniper, including the warts and darkness, but instead has chosen to be pretty much true to the auto-biography, even exaggerating minor events into big ones, and treating the character with an excess of compassion (the evidence of post traumatic stress isn't really visible in the book). His desertion of his family is portrayed as Kyle simply being more obsessed with protecting fellow soldiers. An equally plausible explanation is that the guy simply liked combat. In fact, that's more the message you're left with after reading the book. ("I like war," Kyle acknowledges.)
It would have been a very, very interesting movie had it objectively looked at what drives such a character, both the good and the bad—told more as documentary than as inflated drama. Instead, it presents a rather flat character just as Kyle presents himself, but in the context of fairly sophisticated story-telling that doesn't seem apropos to the character. The film would have been far more interesting if it had studied the character, not merely worshiped him.
I certainly sympathize with the family of Kyle, especially now as his disturbed murderer is on trial. But I cannot but help reflect on the oddly ironic karma of a warrior who has anonymously killed as many as 200 human beings, one at a time, without apparent moral questioning, then earns a boatload of money from the book and the film rights, and is finally killed himself in a civilian context after returning safely home.
American Sniper is a pretty good movie, no matter what your politics. But if you want to see Eastwood at his very best in a war film, then have a look at Flags of Our Fathers or Letters from Iwo Jima. In those, Eastwood is very clear about his message. Both those movies are considerably better than American Sniper.