Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is the perfect American film for 2015. It’s good vs. evil, a man on a mission, a film about family values, God, patriotism, loyalty, and sacrifice. And it’s all a sham.
It starts with a false premise - that all of humankind can be broken down into sheep (who presumably can’t defend themselves, and maybe even are clueless about their situation), wolves (who prey on the sheep), and sheepdogs, who take it upon themselves to protect the sheep from the wolves. Chris Kyle, a young cowboy turned Navy SEAL when America first faces terrorism in the years before 9/11, fancies himself a sheepdog, and the first scenario in which we see him at work is in Iraq. He sees a young Iraqi boy about to blow himself up as American soldiers approach.
So here’s my question. Is the boy a sheep, a wolf, or a sheepdog? He’s a victim, really, of the people who put him up to the crime. The boy is actually a sheep. But Kyle feels he must kill the boy to protect American soldiers, who certainly aren’t sheep in his scenario. Or is Kyle killing the boy to protect American sheep at home? Do you begin to see why this is a bullshit analogy? Kyle feels regret for the killing, and later, when faced with a similar situation, seems relieved when he doesn't have to kill an even younger boy. He knows that the boys are also victims. But still, are the boys wolves that need killing or sheep that need protecting?
So let’s skip the sheepdog stuff. Kyle’s a sniper, and so good at his job he earns the nickname Legend. Other soldiers feel safe around him. They appreciate that he’s up there, on tops of buildings, killing the enemy before they can kill Americans. And considering our soldiers were in harm’s way, that’s all well and good. If we had to have soldiers in Iraq, we needed guys like Kyle protecting them. There’s no doubt he saved American soldiers’ lives, and for that he deserves our respect.
But this is where the entire premise of the film comes into question. Why was Kyle there in the first place? Why was Kyle put in a position of having to shoot young Iraqi boys drafted into a war? If we didn’t have soldiers there in the first place, Kyle wouldn’t have had that burden placed onto him. Clint Eastwood seems to recognize that some of us would have this question, but instead of asking it, Eastwood shrugs it off. Kyle’s younger brother, an army grunt, is sick of the war. He gets nothing out of fighting, no sense of being a hero, of protecting sheep. And Kyle’s wife tells him at one point that’s he’s done enough, that he’s done his duty. But Kyle refuses to consider that he never had to be in Iraq in the first place.
It’s a form of denial. Kyle, and by extension Eastwood, is denying the fact that the war wasn’t necessary. Instead of facing this question head on, Kyle ignores it. And this denial runs through the entire film.
Kyle is in denial about how much the death he has seen and contributed to has affected him. We see some stress between him and his wife, and he eventually goes to the VA to maybe get some help. He tells a doctor he doesn’t feel bad about what he saw or did (in fact he’s ready to meet his maker and account - or defend? - every killing). Instead he feels badly for the soldiers he didn’t save, and he feels guilty for still not being there when other Americans are still at risk. The VA doctor suggests Kyle help other soldiers as a form of therapy, which Kyle accepts. But does Kyle ever accept that he is indeed suffering from PTSD? No.
Kyle is also in denial about how effective he was as a “sheepdog.” Stateside, he gets approached in a garage by a young veteran who thanks him for saving his life. But the veteran wasn’t completely whole - he has a prosthetic leg. Kyle seems uncomfortable at the adulation. Back in Iraq he wants to protect his friends, especially, but one of his best friends gets shot by a rival sniper, right at his side. His friend at first survives, and Kyle visits him stateside, but Kyle later learns that the friend died. So what kind of sheepdog is Kyle, really?
Kyle, and Eastwood, are also in denial about the violence that surrounds us. Kyle seems to spend his entire life with a gun at his side. He gets the sheepdog speech as a child, while hunting with his father. The final scenes of the film are all about guns, but nobody seems to notice. Kyle goes target shooting with some veterans, both amputees. Kyle takes his young son hunting. Then Kyle playfully pulls a pistol on his wife, acting out what seems to me a reenactment of the “rape” scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid - early in the film, where train robber and sharp-shooter Redford breaks into Katherine Ross’s apartment and orders her to strip, but it’s revealed she’s his girlfriend. Kyle and his wife get interrupted by a young veteran Kyle is helping from the VA - he tells the young man they will go driving, talk, and go shooting. As he leaves the house Kyle sets the gun on a ledge, in clear view of his young children. And it’s suggested, by the fade out on Kyle’s wife by the door, that this is the troubled vet who killed Kyle.
And this is the last, and starkest, example of denial. The film ends with a title card explaining that Kyle “was killed” by a veteran Kyle was helping. Why not say that he was shot by that veteran, at a driving range? We see the real-life footage of the patriotic response to Kyle’s death, with many flags along the highway saluting his funeral motorcade. Why not give us the real-life details of his death?
Because the film is in denial about the role guns play in American culture. And denial about why we fight wars, and about what we hope to accomplish through violence, and what happens to the men we ask to fight for us. Eastwood respects soldiers, and he wants us to feel for them, to feel for the trouble they face and problems they encounter on the battlefield and at home. But he doesn’t ever ask if there is a way to avoid these problems in the first place. That’s the question Americans need to ask, and I wish Eastwood did that in this film.
There are a few other odd things in the film:
We see Kyle go through rigorous Navy SEAL training, which includes something that seems very similar to torture - even water boarding, with simulated drowning. Is Eastwood saying that if it’s good enough for our soldiers, it’s good enough for terrorists?
Kyle returns to Iraq for multiple tours first out of a sense of loyalty to his fellow soldiers, but later because he’s more comfortable in Iraq than at home. Every time he returns to Iraq, it seems like he’s fighting the same battle over and over again. Is this a failure by Eastwood to make the battles interesting, or is he really saying that the Iraq war was us just going in circles???
Finally, I think it’s too bad criticism of this film has been divided into blindly backing the film, and therefore being Patriotic and Supporting the Troops, versus calling Kyle a lying murderer and therefore hating America and loving the terrorists. Of course it’s much more complicated. Ultimately, I feel terrible for guys like Kyle, who suffered emotionally, even if they won't admit it; and for the soldiers killed or wounded. Which is why we have to question the rationale behind going to war, and the rationale behind using violence to solve our problems.