Every war eventually gets the soldier’s tale its culture believes it deserves. As “The Best Years of Our Lives” was to World War II and “Platoon” was to the Vietnam War, so Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” may be shaping up as the catharsis many Americans have been hoping would give voice to (or reflect, or justify, or lie further about) our involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. How hungry are people to see this movie? “Sniper” broke the record for a January release with a huge $89 million opening weekend. There are reports of audiences stunned into silence at the final credits, of veterans leaving theaters in tears.
Why audiences are hungry to see it, and what, exactly, they think they’re seeing are different, less settled questions. “American Sniper” is a complicated animal, one I think quite brilliantly shows how a fighting man’s certainty can founder on the actuality of dead women and children, the thirst for vengeance, and an increasingly clouded mission. As sympathetic as it is to the film’s title character, the late Chris Kyle, it’s a hero’s tale that questions what heroism means and that finds the usual definitions painfully lacking. But because the movie has landed in the midst of a polarized cultural landscape, its message has been simplified and misunderstood on both sides of the divide.
The boo-yah boneheads have taken to Twitter to gloat at how the movie stoked them up and confirmed their hatreds. From @TheRaganBrock: “Teared up at the end of American Sniper. Great [expletive] movie and now I really want to kill some [expletive] ragheads.” From @dezmondharmon (since deleted), “American sniper makes me wanna go shoot some [expletive] Arabs,” with three cute little handgun emojis.
This is the possible tip of an iceberg of a sizable percentage of “American Sniper” viewers who, confronted with the film’s intentionally conflicting signals — the fellow soldier whose letter home mourns a country that has lost its way, the mounting distress of Kyle’s wife and brother, the abject pain and anger reflected in Bradley Cooper’s body language and eyes as his tours grind on — retreat into the comfort of simpler pieties. Groused one commenter on Metacritic.com, “I watched this in amazement, was he supposed to be a hero?” No and yes; yes and no — you’re supposed to figure it out for yourself, fella.
There has been silliness on the other side of the aisle as well, such as the online strafing about Eastwood’s use of baby mannequins in the home-front scenes — something you may not notice on first viewing (I didn’t) but that proves hard to ignore once your attention is called to it — as if all of “American Sniper” can be invalidated by one dubious production choice. Or the clueless snobbery of The New York Times box office analyst who dismissed the film as “patriotic” “pro-family” fluff that only played well in the heartland. (A. Some of the film’s biggest grosses were in New York City. B. It sounds like he didn’t see the movie.)
Worse was a writer for The New Republic, Dennis Jett, who spent four paragraphs trashing the movie before getting to this: “I have not seen ‘American Sniper.’ But if the trailer is any indication. . . .” To any responsible journalist, that’s grounds for dismissal.
The battle raged, continues to rage. Famous names like Seth Rogen and Michael Moore have tweeted their objections to the film — Moore noted that his uncle was killed by a sniper in World War II, so he’s not exactly sympathetic to the subject — and have been threatened with grievous bodily harm. Memo to all those patriotic online thugs: Threatening to put a cap in someone you disagree with actually makes you one of “the bad guys.”
The most thoughtful negative response I received to my positive review of “American Sniper” came from a young reader who sees the film — and Chris Kyle’s whole narrative — as a way to resolve our conflicted feelings about the war in Iraq and rewrite the script so that the men and women of the US military are victims rather than pawns or aggressors. This puts the movie in a box with “Rambo: First Blood II” and other revisionist pop artifacts that seem specifically engineered to banish doubt and let us feel good about ourselves again. (And if there’s one thing that makes American audiences uncomfortable, it’s not feeling good about ourselves.)
I disagree, even as I don't dispute parts of this countervailing long view. True, “Sniper” never questions the assumptions and faulty information that put us in Iraq in the first place, and for some that is reason enough to ignore or scorn the film. While it sympathizes with Iraqi civilians and acknowledges — to a point — the trauma they sustained, the movie sees every fighter on the other side as Kyle did, as our war movies do, as children playing cowboys and Indians do: as undifferentiated “bad guys.”
Instead, “Sniper” is a story told strictly from an American soldier’s point of view, with the relevant honesty, blind spots, dissonances, defensiveness, pride, professionalism, and self-loathing put out there for all to see. Beyond that, there’s an innate understanding that anyone who wasn’t there — be they a filmmaker or a movie critic or an audience member or a bloviator on the right or the left — can never comprehend the experience, and that those who were there share an unbreakable, inexpressible bond.
Which hasn’t stopped us from using “American Sniper” as a hankie to weep uncomplicatedly in or a stick with which to bludgeon others, both responses at the expense of the mixed messages its maker intuitively and (I believe) consciously put there. So many audiences are coming to this movie to have their beliefs mirrored and reconfirmed, holding on to the parts that jibe with what they want to see and tossing out the rest. Ask yourself: Is that Eastwood’s fault or is it ours?