Our Hero is a devout Christian, who has found a means of reconciling his faith with his role as a gifted marksman, serving his country in a war of questionable morality. He’s a bit uncomfortable with the fame that greets him when he comes home, but his conscience is clean regarding what he did with his marksmanship. And Cooper, the actor who plays him, gives a terrific, Oscar-winning performance.
No, I’m not being premature. I’m talking about Sgt. York, Howard Hawks’ great biopic of the World War I hero Alvin York, played famously by Gary Cooper.
It may be that Bradley Cooper wins the Oscar playing Chris Kyle for Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, and I’ll say that he really did a remarkable transformation to play the part of this Navy SEAL recognized as one of the most successful marksmen in U.S. history. I knew Cooper was playing the part, and still I didn’t believe it when we first meet him.
But Chris Kyle is not Alvin York. York resisted going to war, applying for Conscientious Objector status. (After serving in the army during the war – he was drafted – he denied that he had ever claimed such a status.) Kyle’s beliefs are clearly formed early in his childhood, and those beliefs propel him to joining the SEALs after the terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
American Sniper has done very well so far at the box office, and it has also caused a good deal of discussion because of its politics. I walked out of the theater – on Martin Luther King Jr Day, of all holidays – feeling a sense of sadness about and for Kyle, whose life was tragically ended at home, allegedly at the hands of a troubled vet whom he’d tried to help. I also felt that there was much missing in the film that might have made me connect more with Kyle; his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) tells us, in the last scene, that he’s made a major change since finally staying home and not going back to the war zone, but we hardly see that change itself. Given the overwhelming amount of screen time devoted to four tours of duty in Iraq, something had to get short-changed, I suppose. (Hawks’ film takes quite a while to get its hero to the European battlefield. Eastwood starts us there, and flashes back to Kyle’s past for about fifteen minutes.)
The artistic choices made are intertwined not only with the tragic conclusion to Kyle’s life – Cooper was preparing for the role when Kyle was killed, giving Eastwood a different ending than he might have planned – but with the political and moral vision of those involved in the film’s making, including Kyle, who was credited as an associate producer of the film. The film is based on Kyle’s book, a book that also received criticism for some of the questionable claims Kyle makes, particularly about his life away from Iraq. I suppose it’s always a bit risky making a film from a nonfiction text whose authenticity is being questioned, but that’s neither here nor there for me, since I’ve not read Kyle’s book. So when I refer to Kyle, I really mean Kyle as we see in the film, not the Kyle as he presented himself in print, or the historical person (who is also different from the other two).
Kyle’s struggles are mainly external ones, not internal ones. His moral vision of the world is black and white: there is evil, and evil must be defeated. The confrontations he has on the battlefield are direct, tactical: find the insurgents and kill those who are trying to kill the marines whose lives he, as a marksman, is assigned to protect. Some decisions are trickier, especially when children are used to launch attacks, but it doesn’t take much time for Kyle to accept killing them. Eastwood’s battle sequences are gruesome, but not so horrific that we turn our heads. The sense of suspense is lost, of course, given the fact that most viewers will know that Kyle does not die in combat. Rather than simply allow an episodic structure, the film dramatizes Kyle’s tours to give us a single focal point (no pun intended): the mercenary sniper called Mustafa, whose gifts with the rifle match Kyle’s. Mustafa’s successful kills of Kyle’s comrades provide the impetus for Kyle to return for yet one more tour; [SPOILER alert] it is after he gets his man, as a sandstorm approaches (a metaphor for the blurred lines of good/evil? Maybe, given that Kyle’s shot actually puts his team at risk since their air support is still minutes away when he fires), that he decides he’s ready to come home.
Kyle’s commitments never really waver. While we see some of the difficulties he has when he is stateside, in between tours, he’s up against a pretty weakly drawn set of characters: Miller is given a set of wifespeak clichés: “even when you’re here, you’re not here” and “don’t expect us to wait for you if you go back there” (this last one is a paraphrase, sorry). But even before their marriage, from when they meet to early on in their relationship, Taya is a straw-girl: she dismisses SEALs as narcissistic, but still goes out with Chris; she expresses worry that their relationship won’t work but he simply tells her it will, and she accepts it. The only thing she seems to assert in that early phase is the initial time they actually have sex. Kyle is the perfect gentleman, asking her if she’s sure she wants to. (I could be picky about how Kyle’s religious values can make square premarital sex, but the film only uses his faith as a means of explaining how he can justify being a sniper and kill.) In one potentially challenging scene, Taya and Chris talk after attending the funeral of one of Kyle’s comrades, Mark, a former preacher who himself had begun to question the moral righteousness of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. His mom had read a letter that expressed her son’s growing ambivalence, and Kyle tells his wife, that letter is what got Mark killed: once you begin to think too much, or more precisely, doubt too much, you become ineffective as a soldier. End of argument.
Even more of a straw-man is Kyle’s kid brother, who is presented in the early flashbacks as the very weaker of the pair, and despite having joined the service, when Kyle sees his bro coming off a tour as he is going back on, he’s only slightly troubled by his brother’s obvious trauma and resentment of what he’s been through – and then we never see the brother again, nor hear about him. Kyle is shaken for about three seconds, then it’s on to the next tour.
Do we see Kyle have difficulties adjusting to life outside the war zone? A bit. He does get upset at a barbecue when he sees a dog being overaggressive with his kid, but in a few moments, he’s at the VA and agrees to hang with the wounded vets and help them heal. The problem, from a dramatic point of view, is that these scenes take up so little screen time that they don’t seem as real or as relevant as the battle scenes. And Kyle is not at all troubled by his killing people; he’s troubled that he’s no longer protecting his country by being home, and that is partly remedied in these brief moments with the wounded vets.
As I said, this moral vision has political implications. It means that the enemy remains distant and one-dimensional. While Mustafa is a formidable foe, he is not a character, any more than, say, Geronimo is a character in John Ford’s Stagecoach, or the Germans in many Classical Hollywood-era films about either of the two World Wars. We know he’s Syrian and that he’s won Olympic gold for his shooting skills, but the only thing that we see that drives him to do what he does is money, and there is a price on Kyle’s head. What might be his moral vision? We don’t know. The use of children to attack soldiers simply points to the lack of morality of the insurgents. The fact that they see the U.S. military as the evil ones is not the film’s concern. The soldiers keep the language relatively clean when talking about the enemy, going old-Hollywood school by calling them savages a bunch of times (speaking of Stagecoach…), though as any soldier will tell you that’s pretty tame stuff. In war, the enemy is de-humanized; that’s how you have to train your soldiers. Once you think of the enemy as human, you’re in trouble. (Think of Paul, the protagonist in the famous anti-war novel by Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front.) The bigger picture – like why the U.S. invaded Iraq in the first place – is not the concern of the film. (Kyle claims in his book to have found WMDs, but this again is disputed.)
Eastwood’s politics are well-known, and telling Chris Kyle’s story allows him to take certain positions that we might otherwise question as givens. You either accept them or you don’t. But no one is going to have their own views transformed by what they see in American Sniper. Your own ideological biases will affect how you read the film. We could see the subtle tragedy in the horrors of war, and what it must do to the men and women who fight. (I said “women,” because that’s the fact, but I think I recall seeing only one female soldier in the film, and not in any of the many fighting sequences.) But we cannot really feel saddened by what Kyle has become as a soldier, because Kyle is pretty much what he is: our reactions are really our projections. If we agree with Kyle’s dad, that there are only three types of people in the world, then we follow along and support Kyle’s missions. The film obviously wants us to see the world from his eyes. The force of the battle sequences, their seriousness, does not ring of the jingo-ism of older Hollywood propaganda films. This is heavy shit, and war is not glamorized here. But the film does tell us that however brutal it is, war is necessary (not to say a necessary evil?), and, in the final credit sequence showing images of Kyle’s memorial service, the warriors should be honored because of their willingness to do the hard tasks of defending a nation from danger. The larger issues have to be taken up by others.