american sniper

American Sniper Isn’t What We Think It Is

I’m an American Sniper. I look at the terrorist through my scope, and follow him to my right, down a dusty street. My cross hair sits right below his forehead. I take a deep breath and pull the trigger. Blood sprays. Good kill. Another extremist dead. I scan the street for more of them. Pop. Pop. Pop. Three kills later, I put my Xbox controller down, and switch on New Girl.

That’s how much our cinematic portrayals and celebrations of military gun violence bother me, apparently.

That little preface was supposed to highlight how much of a hypocrite I am, before I actually say anything about gun violence or any related political topic.  That’s not what this article is about, but just in case I mention it.  You know how when you’re a kid you sometimes lessen the embarrassment of something by telling all your friends before the class bully gets the chance?  So hopefully that will assure you that I won’t be sharing my political opinions too much.

I should also preface this with the fact that this is not meant to be an opinion about Chris Kyle.  It’s an opinion about the movie, American Sniper.  That’s a distinction that many American’s are simply not mentally stable enough to understand.  Honest truth, I said to someone (admittedly to wind them up, because I didn’t actually believe what I was saying) “American Sniper wasn’t a very good film.”  Their response was “Chris Kyle is an American Hero!!”  Remarkable.  But seriously, I didn’t know Chris Kyle. But he was a brave dude, and he was incredibly skilled and it sounds like he saved a ton of lives.  I’m down for that, whether he exhibited some flaws back home or not.  His death was so tragic, and the irony is painful, that after all he had been through he is shot back on home soil by a troubled veteran who wanted his truck.  Nobody deserves that.  But again, that’s not the point of this article.  This is a movie blog.  So let’s continue.  Stop now to avoid SPOILERS.

I don’t know what compelled me to watch American Sniper. I mean, I see all of the Oscar Nominees every year, so I was going to see it anyway. But I’m saying that on a Saturday morning I woke up and I felt compelled to see it, instead of a number of other great movies like Selma and The Theory Of Everything. Better movies. So I got in my car and headed over to the theater on my own and bought me a ticket. There were two men in front of me, dressed in camouflage, lower lips filled with a nice chew. They smelled like weed. I heard one of them say “Man, I been waiting for this one for a long time.” I’ll bet you have, buddy. There was a family of 5 in there too. Afterwards I saw the look of pride on Dad’s face as his sons expressed their admiration and love for a true American hero.  Mom didn’t look so thrilled, but you can’t win them all.  The theater was almost completely full.  There was a nice Middle Eastern couple there too and strangely enough there was a bunch of open seats around them.

Alright, that last part isn’t true, thankfully.  I was just trying to make this article more dramatic.  But if you’re American you probably believed it.  What does that tell you?  And for those of you did,  and were angry about the fact that a Middle Eastern couple came to the movie (as opposed to the other point, about the empty seats) then you are probably racist.  But I digress.

(I just strongly stated that this was a strictly a movie blog, and then egregiously inserted a heavy social/political statement a couple paragraphs later.  Shameless.  Good job it’s my blog.)

There are so many different types of people who saw American Sniper, for so many different reasons. Those I described above were just two of them. The hard-up, blue collar America lovers and the All-American middle class conservative family. Then you’ve got the teenage “snipers are bad-ass” Call of Duty players. The ‘I know almost none of the story or facts, but I’m going to post “Chris Kyle – A True American Hero” on Facebook right between my mirror selfie and my car selfie’ girls. The uber-liberal, anti war protestors. Then there’s Michael Moore, hater of everything, who went as far as to link Chris Kyle and snipers with cowardice, and claim that he received a verbal death threat from director Clint Eastwood. He’s in a category of his own.

They’re all there. They all have their own opinions of the film. All of those opinions are incredibly different. Not like, one guy liked it for these reasons and another guy didn’t for these other reasons. I mean completely different philosophies on what the film means, stands for and is attempting to portray. I’ve heard of different interpretations, but this is curious. Here’s one example. An article on CNN claims that the film is a “Powerful Anti War film.” Interestingly, an article on WarOnTheRocks.com claims that “The movie sadly confirms what it always threatened to be: a one-dimensional celebration of American patriotism and the 9/11 Wars.” A completely opposite view. Both are supported, but both can’t be right.  Strangely, I did enjoy the film quite a lot, but my experience of the film didn’t match either of these at all.

So, why is this?

One explanation might be that American Sniper is a complex and multifaceted film, which divides our views on the subject by presenting both sides of the story with intelligence and nuance. The political implications of war, and the global and individual effects on our nation and it’s people. The agendas, the heroes, the evils, the horrible truths. All melded into a thought provoking picture that divides opinions about everything except it’s unquestioned quality as a cinematic masterpiece.

Nope, that’s not it.

The fact is this (and I’ll expand):  America Sniper was a good film, but a pretty straightforward one.  It was a war movie, with good action scenes and some pretty good acting.  That’s about it.

But it showed the awful moral struggle that a sniper must face in having to kill so many men and even women and children……

Well yeah, that initial scene where he’s faced with shooting a grenade wielding son and mother is intense.  No doubt.  It’s a tough one to watch and it’s extremely compelling.  So is the scene with the other kid, holding the rocket launcher.  But was that developed?  No, not even in the slightest.  He routinely picks off everyone without blinking an eye, and I don’t say that as a criticism at all.  It was a war.  He was killing bad guys.  Lot’s of them.  But just throwing in one extremely intense scene doesn’t automatically make this a film about internal moral struggle.  He even says himself, later, that he isn’t affected by killing.  It’s by those who he didn’t or won’t save.  Plus, in his book, it sounds more like he freaking loved killing bad guys.  He called them savages.  So I just couldn’t buy the whole moral struggle thing.

But the film is really about the affects on our soldiers after the war and the portrayal of PTSD is brilliant……

Really?  It got about 10 minutes of screen time, maybe.  It was basically just a couple heavy handed scenes, with no development.  He got home.  He almost killed the family dog because he thought it was a terrorist dog.  He got nervous when some cars were tailgating his truck.  That’s about it it.  There have been whole films dedicated to the effects of PTSD.  Deer Hunter was a movie about PTSD.  Born On The Fourth Of July was too.  Sure, American Sniper touches on the subject, but to suggest that it could be a brilliant portrayal of the disorder is doing an injustice to the real problem in my opinion.  This is a movie about killing bad guys, with a small mention of what happens when you’re done killing bad guys.

There is a theme with these things.  To me, it seemed like Clint Eastwood had a checklist of war topics he needed his film to cover, after he got done filming all the battle scenes and sniper kills.  So he did all that first, and then he was like, “Okay, Kyle almost kills dog.  PTSD scene.  Check.  Remind us why we’re at war by showing a clip of 9/11.  Check.  Humanize Chris Kyle with a moral struggle kill.  Check.  Alright guys.  That’s a wrap.” It wasn’t genius film making.  It was actually pretty heavy handed and I think he opted to focus on the sniping.  It was fairly effective for the most part, but again, let’s not get carried away here.

So why ARE people getting carried away?  Why are they forming these views and interpretations of a film that doesn’t require them.  There’s a few reasons.

Chris Kyle wrote a book.  One of the biggest reasons for the controversy that surrounds the film is that Kyle, quite frankly, sounded like a bit of a maniac in the book at times, despite all of his heroic work.  He also had a few issues with telling the truth, notoriously getting sued by Jesse Ventura for fabricating some story about punching Ventura while defending the honor of his country and it’s military.  Something about picking off looters with his Sniper Rifle during Katrina too.  So needless to say, a lot of people began to dislike the guy.  I’d imagine those are the folks who hate the movie and think it’s promoting violence and war and racism.  Then there’s the people who love the guy, and therefore have to defend his honor and defend the movie.  But instead of just sticking with ‘it’s a great movie’ they decide to overdo it with these outlandish analyses.

Politics.  Republicans love this stuff.  Liberals, less so.  Let the debates begin.

News.  Because of the controversy surrounding Chris Kyle, and of course his tragic death, the media know they have huge traffic fodder.  But they have to spin things and get debate flowing.  What better way to get debate going about a movie and it’s portrayed hero than to add these outlandish analyses of the film.  These analyses lead to other people wanting to be smarter, by out analyzing the others.  The cycle repeats.  Analysis paralysis.

Gun glorification.  Obviously a huge topic, it’s odd that most action movies don’t have this problem.  But because this is supposed to portray real life situations, and it’s war related, the anti-gun folks are immediately jumping all over it, trying to describe the ways that it’s celebrating the use of guns.  I have my feelings about guns in this country.  I am torn, but I don’t like guns much to be honest.  When the anti-gun folks bring up the fact that the film talks about all the ‘confirmed kills’ that Kyle has, over 160 or something, and how his fellow soldiers call him legendary for that, I kind of take their point.  But not really.  Firstly, the idea of ‘confirmed kills’ is a silly one, and very Hollywood from what I’ve read.  It’s not like there is a formal military process for it.  But that’s what the book said, and that’s how fellow soldiers reacted, so it’s just simply an accurate portrayal of the story.  The marketing for the film does include that confirmed kill figure.  That may well be kind of celebratory in a shameless marketing kind of way.  But if that’s the case, don’t even bother analyzing the film and trying to generate all the ways it’s promoting gun violence.  It’s a war movie.  People get shot.  The point is, even if they are celebrating gun violence, just say that and stop trying to be clever about it.  Don’t blame the movie.  It’s not that smart.

Racism.  There are a lot of racists in America.  People took to Twitter quickly to tell the world how much American Sniper made them want to “kill some ragheads”.  There was plenty more where that came from, and much worse too.  Of course, this racist outburst is sick and deplorable.  Ignorance in the United States is an epidemic.  But, these racist comments become fodder for the haters of the film to over analyze it even more.  When one of the tweets confirms that the people in the Middle East are indeed all ‘Savages’ that threaten the freedoms of our beautiful country (tweeted from the living room of a man who was sitting at the same computer desk 13 years ago playing World of Warcraft while 9/11 was on mute in the background), people are quick to connect the use of the word ‘savage’ back to Eastwood’s film.  Essentially the film now gets the blame for that.  It is therefore, racist too.  No.  It’s a movie about Chris Kyle.  Chris Kyle constantly called his enemies savages in his book and in person.  Eastwood therefore put that in the film.  Pretty simple.  I do think the film was certainly very right-winged, and perhaps a little pro-war, but to call it racist is unfair and to try and create these analyses to prove it is silly.  Don’t blame a movie for racism in America.  We had that market sewn up already.

You look at this stuff, and my point is this.  This was not a complex film.  When you look at all the stuff about that swirls around this film, what you’ll realize is that in reality, every bit of debate about American Sniper actually has next to nothing to do with the film itself.  People already have their opinions, and they’re simply watching the film and picking out parts of it to connect to these opinions.

This leads to us giving this film and Clint Eastwood credit for being some kind of genius who can dissect the issues in a film and make us think.  This is a war film that that actually AVOIDS the issues.

Did you notice any mention of the debate on whether we should go to war or not?  Nope.  Eastwood is a raging Republican, so we saw 9/11 on the TV and Chris Kyle looking like he wanted to rush over and kill some bad guys.  Eastwood knows darn well that a quick 9/11 shot is all he needs to cover on that topic.  The war argument, covered in 30 seconds.

How about any of the terrorist complications.  Bin Laden.  The political implications of searching for him  Nothing.  No need.  They had the super bad guy sniper and a terrorist called ‘The Butcher’ who gets no background and very little information.  We know he’s bad because he hurts people.  Let me tell you something.  A movie that focuses this much screen time on the individual battle between two snipers, while a war is going on between millions of people, is not that focused on the issues.

There is really no context here.  It’s just a guy going to war.  Nice and simple.  Yet, people try and analyze this film like it’s complex and remarkably intelligent.  Birdman is a film that requires interpretation and analysis.  Calvary is a film like that.  Whiplash is a film like that.  American Sniper is the story of a soldier.  It’s a good story, and it’s perfect for the big screen.

I am a person who tends to ride to fence and look at both sides of an issue, much to the dismay of many of my clear sided friends.  I also hadn’t heard much about Chris Kyle.  So I had a blank(ish) slate.  The film I saw was intense.  It was sad.  It was at times, visually jarring and emotional.  It was at times quite powerful too.   Overall, I thought it wasn’t spectacular, but a pretty darn good movie.

But please understand what it wasn’t.

Complicated.

Check out our review of American Sniper here.

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