Old Geezers Out to Lunch

Old Geezers Out to Lunch
The Geezers Emeritus through history: The Mathematician™, Dr. Golf™, The Professor™, and Mercurious™

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Sniping about American Sniper

American Sniper, meet American actor. 
Mrs. Mercurious and I are obsessed movie-goers—so much so that we make every attempt to see every Oscar nominated film each year, even the obscure foreign films,  documentaries, and short films. So we have of course seen American Sniper, the Clint Eastwood-directed movie that has earned nominations both as best picture and for Bradley Cooper as actor in the title role.

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. 
When seen outside the context of his first person biography, Kyle turns out to be an interesting character, prone to telling self-aggrandizing tall tales about himself. Most notable is the claim of beating up Jesse Ventura, the former professional wrestler and Navy Seal himself, after Ventura bad-mouths Navy Seals in an episode in a bar. This never happened, and Ventura won a civil suit against Kyle's estate because of the lie. In another instance, Kyle invented an episode in which he killed two would-be carjackers in Texas, saying that authorities looked the other way in deference to Kyle's status as folk hero. That episode, too, seems to have never occurred.

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.


  1. Thanks--I haven't seen this movie, but it's on my list and now that I have missed it's opening, I'll probably wait till I watch it on netflix

  2. You offer a wise and thoughtful review. Your point re: a more textured character study, as opposed to a worship is especially important. I also agree that Eastwood's Flags and Letters films are more authentic. Still, a take-away from Sniper is the oppressive reality our troops find themselves in. There is the horror and fear of war and the brotherly spirit that ensues amongst warriors and the absolute disconnect of being home, with family in a place of peace. It seems Eastwood made an important statement about this void or chasm. An ineffective social, therapeutic, response only compounds the trauma our troops encounter. Kyle demonstrated this as portrayed brilliantly by Cooper.
    As a documentary maker we spent 6 weeks following Rangers through Army Sniper training at Ft. Benning.
    It's a tough go and many wash out or don't make the grade. The kids we followed-I call them kids because they were all in their early to mid 20's-were not overtly blood thirsty monsters. They were tough, having earned Ranger status and they knew their life path would involve peril, but they wanted to gain an additional skill that might give their fellow warriors a measure of additional advantage.
    I consider life to be sacred. A minister friend calls war "a crucifixion." I'm fortunate to have avoided being in a position where I would even have to think about the need to take a human life.
    Your post gives us another dimension by which to measure our values and our social complicity in the Kyle story and those of thousands of other men and women.

  3. I seldom watch these movies; I can work out the story in my head and cannot bear the film depiction. I do admire anyone who can watch in order to be able to remark first hand. I have to tell you I sat straight up at reading "flat character." It's the part I understand intellectually and from observation. How do the armed forces return flat characters to us of the inquisitive young minds we assume they took in? I saw it happen to my brother, who served during the Vietnam conflict, to his son, who served twenty five years later. I assume his army training is the core of my brother-in-law's personality, as compared to his five siblings who did not serve.
    I'm drawing the comparison to fifty years ago because the result then is not unlike now. Perhaps as a society we have failed enlistees and veterans for fifty years. I do not know the answer.

  4. A mind followed though repetitions of being judge and executioner could have no escape from doubt besides denial or exaggeration --factitious disorder, Munchausen Syndrome-- or both. Recruiters have a lot to answer for.

  5. My son was a Ranger, out now for three years. He was in Afghanistan two times, Iraq once. He is largely dismissive of these films, perhaps out of some kind of defense, I don't know. Two years in VN in the late 60's, I sort of know what he's thinking, maybe. If you weren't there, you just don't know. You can't.

  6. Great post! Food for though, that is for sure.
    I probably won't see this one. Not because I'm turned off by war movies, because I'm not. I just have a lot of problems with the when, where and why of this one.

    As to the sniper himself...
    While it's true that a sniper can wreck havoc among ground troops, including ours, they are not always respected by their fellow (non-sniper) soldiers. Seriously, who is going to get more respect? The sniper who is disconnected from the battle in terms of both distance and danger, or the grunt who actually has his "dick in the dirt?" Some people refer to snipers as cowards. I don't agree with that at all, but they certainly are far from being heroes. Does it take guts to kill a man from distance? I would say it doesn't. Especially so, if that man is not threat to you.

    A long time ago, I was confronted with the possibility of going to sniper school while I was in the Marine Corps. I not trying to advertise my blog by leaving this link to an old blog post about the subject. I just thought it kind of tied in to your post today.