I have neither read Chris Kyle’s memoir American Sniper nor seen the movie based on his book. Kyle was the decorated Navy SEAL who became “the deadliest sniper in the annals of American warfare.” Writing for The Intercept, Peter Maass said that just a few pages into the memoir, Kyle “used an epithet to describe the Arabs on the wrong side of his gun scope.”
“A lot of people, myself included, called the enemy ‘savages.’ I only wish I had killed more. Not for bragging rights, but because I believe the world is a better place without savages out there taking American lives.”
The film American Sniper—starring Bradley Cooper as Kyle—had a limited release in late December. Maass said that even before its national release on January 16th, the movie had become “an Oscar contender.” He said the Los Angeles Times hailed “its action scenes as ‘impeccably crafted,’”—while The New Yorker saluted “Clint Eastwood for making other directors ‘look like beginners.’”
Unfortunately, Hollywood’s producing class, taking a break from exchanging catty emails about A-list stars, has created another war film that ignores history, and reviewers who spend too much time in screening rooms are falling over themselves in praise of it.
Maass added that they “should know better.” He remembered that back in 2012 the movie Zero Dark Thirty “was lavishly praised by most reviewers…until criticism emerged from political reporters like Jane Mayer and others…that the tide turned against the pro-torture fantasy at its core.” He noted that there was a backlash “after the film made ‘best of the year’ lists…”—and that the backlash was probably responsible for the movie “being all but shut out of the Academy Awards.” Maass is hoping the same fate awaits American Sniper.
Maass’s main criticism of the film is that it “makes no attempt to tell us anything beyond Kyle’s limited comprehension of what was happening” He said that more than ten years “after America invaded and occupied Iraq, and long after we realized the war’s false pretense and its horrific toll, we deserve better.” Maass added, “There’s a dilemma at work: a war movie that is true of one American’s experience can be utterly false to the experience of millions of Iraqis and to the historical record. Further, it’s no act of patriotism to celebrate, without context or discussion, a grunt’s view that the people killed in Iraq were animals deserving their six-feet-under fate.”
Negin Farsad (Indiewire) wrote that Eastwood’s latest film “says a lot about America – there are hints of home-of-the-brave, sprinklings of let’s-show-‘em-how-its-done, and a generous helping of America-fuck-yeah! It is, after all a movie about a hero. Navy Seal Chris Kyle fought for his country in multiple tours in Iraq and was, by every measure, a great American patriot.”
Yet, she questioned what measures we use to determine patriotism.
…What metrics are we using for patriotism and what does it say about us? The film itself is expertly directed – as many legit critics will tell you – but it was the experience of watching the movie, in a packed theatre, with other red-blooded Americans like myself, where the fear crept in.
Farsad said that after the part in the movie when Kyle “managed to kill his last target, the audience erupted in cheers. Loud cheers.” That made her squirm. She said, “Cheering the death of another human being seemed…a little gross. Do I love my country less because I’m uncomfortable cheering the death of another man? I don’t, but as I write this, I worry that even questioning our construct of patriotism will get me on some kind of turncoat hit list.”
She noted that the film did an excellent job of giving moviegoers “a running tally of exactly how many people Kyle killed.” She said that his final count of confirmed kills—160—was “repeated and lauded throughout the film by colleagues, friends, and family.” She added that there was no “sugarcoating it either – no one said, ‘You’re a legend for how much you fight for democracy.’ No, the naked language of ‘confirmed kills’ is what produced the admiration.”
Maybe confirmed kills should not be the metric by which we define patriotism? Maybe because we celebrate these kinds of confirmed kills, we’re at a loss for how to handle the other kind of confirmed kills, the kind the police brought us in Ferguson or Staten Island? The police, like the military, are heroes; they put themselves in danger for us. But killing people is the most grotesque part of their jobs. And sometimes, they get it wrong. We’re supposed to offer unqualified support for their valor, but now it seems that maybe that support should have some boundaries. Throughout the film, Kyle never appeared to question his kills, and in our relationship to war and criminal justice, neither do we.
In the final paragraph of her article about American Sniper, Farsad said that what was scary about the movie was the number of things that “it got right about America.”
I want to revere Kyle not because of his confirmed kills or because he wanted to get the savages, but because he believed in some kind of democratic ideal. I want to believe that our international strategic plan makes killing people the last option on the docket. “American Sniper” is a film that does ask us to consider the toll war takes on soldiers, but does not ask us to consider the fundamental destruction of unmitigated jingoism. It reflects an America whose patriotism verges on an irresponsibility that actually abuses the willingness and valor of its soldiers.
Maass reported that in addition to playing the starring role in American Sniper, Cooper was also one of the film’s producers. He said Cooper claimed the film wasn’t “a movie about the Iraq war.” Cooper said it was a film “about the horror of what a soldier like Chris has to go through”—and added that it was “not a political movie at all. It’s a movie about a man—a character study.”
Maass said that if Cooper “means what he said about its lack of politics, he fails to understand how war movies operate in popular culture.” Maass thinks that when a movie “venerates an American sniper but portrays as sub-human the Iraqis whose country we were occupying…it conveys a political message that is flat wrong. Among other things, it ignores and dishonors the scores of thousands of Iraqis who fought alongside American forces and the hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians who were killed or injured in the crossfire.”
Maass said that he wasn’t surprised by Hollywood. He noted that “the making of great and true movies is not a feature built into its strange operating system amid the palm trees…” He added, however, that he was “dismayed with the reviewers who should know better.”
As Alissa Quart wrote for Reuters during the backlash to ZDT (full disclosure: Quart is my wife), today’s critics tend to avoid cinematic politics, in contrast to their predecessors, like Mary McCarthy and Pauline Kael. If a movie is well acted and nicely shot and carries the viewer along, that is enough to earn five stars in their reviews, because history does not matter to them. They are ideology-agnostic formalists, and this hurts us.
We got Iraq wrong in the real world. It would be nice to get it right at the multiplex.
How Clint Eastwood Ignores History in ‘American Sniper’ (The Intercept)
Zero Conscience in “Zero Dark Thirty” (The New Yorker)
Here’s What ‘American Sniper’ Says About America (Indiewire)
Death of an American sniper (Salon)