“American Sniper” Misses the Mark

Iolanthe Brooks ’15

I did not choose to watch “American Sniper.” In fact, had it not been for my Fox News-watching, firmly Republican grandfather, I probably would have walked into a much easier movie to write about, an Into the Woods or even an Annie. But instead I, the grumbling granddaughter, sat down to Clint Eastwood’s new film, a biopic about Chris Kyle, America’s deadliest sniper and a man who served four tours in Iraq before returning home and writing a book, on which the movie is based.

Sniper, which stars a seriously buffed-up Bradley Cooper as Kyle, became an unexpected blockbuster and, as of now, is the third highest grossing movie in America. Not only is this film getting a lot of people in the theater, drawing large audiences, but it also has received a lot of support from Hollywood and from news outlets. That’s why it’s important to understand the larger message of “American Sniper,” beyond the attention it has received.

From a cinematography standpoint, “American Sniper” is well done. It disorients in all the right moments; it uses the small lens of the sniper (a metaphor not lost on some viewers) as a tool for telling Kyle’s story without overusing it to the point of a silly video game feeling. By and large, it is well shot, and some of the scenes are very well constructed. Cooper, as well, did an amazing job, and the other actors, most of whom were reduced to two-dimensional roles, still pulled off great performances.

Sniper also beautifully and devastatingly depicts Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a feat that was unexpected and is hard to pull off. So often, movies mistreat and misrepresent mental illness and “American Sniper” doesn’t fall, at least immediately, into this trap. That being said, Kyle’s almost instant “recovery” from his PTSD came off as trying to tie up the movie in a happy ending that, instead, seemed inauthentic.

None of these things, however, are as central to talking about “American Sniper” as its subject matter. The film tells the story of the Iraq War, and by extension the War on Terror, through Kyle’s eyes, and this includes his white savior complex, his vilification of Islam and the Iraqi people as “savages” (yes, that’s a direct quote), and his glorification of the war. Not all these points are without their worth. The absolute inability of Kyle to think of the war and the civilians he encounters in complex terms, rather than as a black and white dichotomy (good vs. evil), points to the fundamental lies that soldiers had to believe in order to fight and the lies at the root of the Iraq War. More explicitly troubling aspects — a Confederate flag hung up in the soldier’s barracks, the death of a family that had helped the army by a terrorist group after the military’s complete disregard for protecting their safety, even Kyle killing a child in the first scene — perhaps were purposeful on the part of Eastwood, to bring to light other issues with Kyle’s perspective.

In the end, though, this movie tells the tale of a man and an army who were doing good things, fighting the good fight. That tale is not the objective truth the movie seems to claim it is. In real life, the vast majority (an estimated 123,000 or more between 2003 and 2012) of deaths in Iraq were civilian deaths. In other words, innocent people. In “American Sniper,” every single person who is killed is involved in a terrorist act.

In real life, many soldiers have recounted, particularly in the aftermath of this movie, the kindness Iraqis showed U.S. troops even as those troops harassed them, bombed them, and killed them. In the film, only one Iraqi family is shown to be kind, but its members are actually terrorists trying to trap the troops (of course!).

In real life, Iraqis are people (having to even say this shows something about the film), yet in Sniper the Iraqi characters have virtually no lines; they are, in essence, bodies to be killed rather than actual characters.

“American Sniper” is, then, dangerous. The film, for the sake of character development, or continuity, or even for the sake of showing American audiences what they want to see about the war, warps the objective truths of its subject matter to fit the subjective and clearly problematic experience of Chris Kyle. Sniper had the potential to display Kyle’s thought system in contrast to the truth of the war in Iraq, emphasizing, rather than diminishing, the contours of this very complex situation. Yet, as it stands today, it chooses to tell Kyle’s story as the truth, and that truth is a lie.

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