In defense of 'American Sniper'

Warner Bros.

By Jamie Bircoll, Senior Arts Editor
Published January 29, 2015

Update: In light of recent at events at the University, I wanted to make something clear: "American Sniper" is a thought-provoking, disturbing film, not a tool for censorship, racism or blind patriotism. Disagreement with elements of art is not cause to ban that art altogether. If you are truly upset with what you see (as you should be), I encourage you to engage in thoughtful discussion with your peers. Be respectful. Be understanding. Film is a platform for discussion; the fact that we are still having one means Clint Eastwood did something right.

Warning: The following discussion of “American Sniper” contains mild plot spoilers.

This is a defense of “American Sniper.” But it’s also more than that. It’s an attempt at understanding the role of cinema in a society so politically inclined, so blinded by its own ideological trappings that it has ceased to examine cinema for its cinematic quality but for its realism. The loudest proponents and detractors of this film alike extract the same meaning from it: validation of their own political leanings. What people have failed to see is that “American Sniper” rises above politicization to give to the public a narrative. Not the narrative, mind you, but a single perspective: of one American soldier delegated immense power, and how that power takes its toll on him and his family.

As far as the media is concerned, there are two reactions that one ought to have after a viewing of the film: “Go America!” or “This is propaganda bullshit.” Of the former party, such subscribers include Blake Shelton and Charlie Daniels, and of the latter, Michael Moore and Seth Rogen. The Twitter-sphere has tended to align with either of these opinions as well. If you walked out of the theater believing one of these two assertions, then one of two things has happened: you watched the wrong movie or you watched the movie the wrong way.

To have these kinds of opinions after leaving the “American Sniper” that I saw is to admit that you either went into the movie with your own opinion already formed or that you only selectively paid attention. If you went into “American Sniper” believing it was an affirmation of American military ideals and/or the idealization of a trained killer, then it actually does make perfect sense to have that “go America” or “fuck war” attitude, depending on your political leaning.

But to do so isn’t fair to the filmmaker or to yourself. Because “American Sniper” doesn’t make a single statement about war, about America, about Iraq or about politics.

So what is “American Sniper”? It’s the single narrative view from the perspective of an American soldier, raised on a set of values, constantly trying to reconcile those values, his love for his family and his anger with the atrocities he commits. And director Clint Eastwood makes this perfectly clear in the first scene:

A sniper peering down his scope sees a young boy carrying what appears to be an anti-tank grenade, running toward a group of soldiers. Oversight cannot confirm if the boy is in fact carrying a grenade. They defer to the sniper’s judgment. He hesitates. The boy prepares to throw the object. The sniper has his finger on the trigger … cut.

Watch the hesitation in Bradley Cooper’s eyes, how tense his face is; contrast that with the stillness of his body, the calm of his breathing. He is at once at peace and at war with himself. Above all else, this film is about internal conflict.

And the film itself captures that conflict in its structure. Shifting between scenes of intense action with apprehensive home life, the film, like Kyle himself, is never still. There’s always something stirring: an enemy militant, a lingering memory. These are equally legitimate forces that eat away at a man’s psyche, at Chris Kyle’s psyche. By the time Kyle has finished his four tours, he is but a vessel of his former energetic, amicable self.

Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall want you to know this. Sure, Kyle looks calm, he looks in control, but you, the viewer, know what he’s seen. You can sense the burning underneath his skin. You should fear Chris Kyle.

But it’s more complicated than that: A news clip of the 9/11 attacks, the screams of a young boy getting his skull drilled in — what is one supposed to feel then? Do we not echo Kyle’s initial enthusiasm or feel his sense of duty, his urgency?

All of this goes back to that central idea: conflict. As you walk out of the theater, you should have not one idea, but multiple; you, like Kyle, should be trying to reconcile all of these contradictory emotions. You should sympathize with Kyle’s family, you should fear for them. Simply, you should think about the film you have just seen.

Part of the controversy, I feel, stems from one’s inability to differentiate between “Chris Kyle the man” and “Chris Kyle the character.” I have never liked the label “based on a true story” because, once reading it, the viewer can only associate a film based on its ability to stay true to history instead of evaluating it on its own cinematic merits. The fact is, I do not know what Chris Kyle the man was like. I do not know if Bradley Cooper’s portrayal of him is accurate. I do not know the degree of factuality of the events of the film.

What I do know is Cooper’s Chris Kyle is a haunted, imposing human who faced trauma, tragedy and suffering, who caused his family pain, who could never separate himself from the battlefield, who killed because he felt it was his duty, who killed women and children, could look them in the eye even if they couldn’t look back. It’s a testament to Cooper’s ability that he invigorates the film where the script is lacking and elevates the film above a standard character drama into a deep, thorough analysis of one man exposed to the harsh environment of war.

Cinema can certainly be political, but to immediately ascribe a film “conservative” or “liberal” without analyzing what makes the film tick is a disservice. “American Sniper” is not a political film. It’s a contemplative film, a tense film and a sad film, but it neither upholds nor denies any ideology.

I urge all to see it, not because it’s the best film of the year, not because of my personal leanings, but because it got me to think and reflect. Good art, really good art, doesn’t agree with you; it rebuffs you. It presents an entirely new way of looking at something once thought fully analyzed. It gets you to think, to question, check and re-check the facts, discuss, debate.

Roger Ebert, I think, summed it up best:

“We live in a box of space and time. Movies are windows in its walls. They allow us to enter other minds, not simply in the sense of identifying with the characters, although that is an important part of it, but by seeing the world as another person sees it.”

“American Sniper” isn’t taking sides. Good film doesn’t take sides. It enlightens. It shows the best and the worst of society, of people.