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Bob Kerr

Is ‘American Sniper’ the best American war movie?

We sat on the ground in Dong Ha and drank beer and watched “The Green Berets.” It was probably sometime in 1969. We laughed, we swore, we threw our empties at the screen.

John Wayne and George Takei in “The Green Berets.”
John Wayne and George Takei in “The Green Berets.”(Warner Bros.)

It has taken years to fully appreciate that moment, to truly savor the experience of watching a movie about a war that was all around us and realizing, quickly, that what was on that makeshift screen was bunk. It was over-the-top preposterous. And we, in our grubby boots and utilities, were an audience uniquely qualified to say we would not be taken in by John Wayne and his faded brand of American invincibility.

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So we filed our reviews with airborne beer cans. And we moved on, carrying a memory of a time and a place when fantasy and reality mixed in a weird, twisted way.

In the years since, “The Green Berets” has become the “Reefer Madness” of war movies. In the hard light of history, the movie becomes a goof, a collection of tired, discredited, and laughable assumptions. It is war presented as some would have it but not as it really is.

But it can be seen as a turning point. It can be seen as the last American war movie to let the myth of battlefield glory run away with it. It’s almost as if moviemakers took a look at “The Green Berets” and said “never again.”

What we have gotten since is a hard, look-at-the-hell-we’ve-created kind of war movie. “The Green Berets” was clearly meant as a feel-good movie about Vietnam. Movies that have followed tell us to feel bad, to feel very, very bad. But more important, our movies about war, the good ones, tell us to feel what it’s like to go there — to be scared and angry and uncertain.

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As my wife and I left a theater in Swansea last week, we noticed how quiet the crowd was. The theater had been packed, and “American Sniper” had left all of us with things to take home and think about.

This is a great movie. I’m not sure who first said a good war movie is a good antiwar movie, but “American Sniper” is stunning proof. It lays out the war in Iraq with a brutal honesty that is uncomfortable and unforgiving. And Bradley Cooper moves a long way from “The Hangover” to bring us Chris Kyle, a Texan raised with a rifle in his hand who went on to become the most deadly sniper in American military history.

Cooper worked on his accent and his body to become the Navy SEAL who went four times to Iraq and was so good at what he did the enemy put a bounty on his head. Cooper bulked up with lots of calories and gym workouts and he worked with a voice coach to learn Texan. He talked with Kyle once on the phone and met with his wife and his demanding father.

And he and director Clint Eastwood have given us what is arguably the best American war movie ever. It spares us the glory and goes right to the fear and the death and the gruesome tragedy of civilians caught between forces they don’t understand and want no part of. It shows us how a man with a cellphone on a rooftop in Fallujah can undo the might of American convoys rolling through the streets.

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It shows us Kyle, looking through the scope of his sniper rifle and finding the enemy and killing with anonymous efficiency. But, most important perhaps, it shows him trying to come home to his wife and children from each of those four tours and never really making it. His wife tells him he is there but he’s not.

At a VA hospital, a psychiatrist brings him to a support group where the therapy includes turning a missing body part into the darkest kind of humor.

We see so much here. This is such a stunning movie because it doesn’t compromise. It just lays it all out. There is no rock ’n’ roll soundtrack, no cheesy combat theatrics that afflicted good but not great movies like ”Apocalypse Now” and “Full Metal Jacket.” And this is a true story of a Texas boy who was a true believer. Chris Kyle makes us think about what heroes are and if there is still a place for them in a country that keeps its wars at a distance.

Robert Duvall in “Apocalypse Now.”
Robert Duvall in “Apocalypse Now.”(Paramount)

There were a bunch of guys in the audience in Swansea wearing their Vietnam veteran hats. They’re looking a tad grizzled, but they continue to be such a vital and valuable part of our history. They can tell us things. They can tell us what “welcome home” actually means. And perhaps they can tell us where they think “American Sniper” fits in among the movies that have tried to show what war does to people.

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I remember going to see “Platoon” with some Vietnam veterans back in 1986. I have always thought it’s the best of the Vietnam movies and perhaps the most difficult to watch. It is the stripped-down version of the war. I’m pretty sure it’s the only Vietnam movie that shows a soldier performing the most dreaded duty of all — burning the waste of his fellow soldiers.

Charlie Sheen in “Platoon.”
Charlie Sheen in “Platoon.”(Photofest)

We went for beers after the movie and had a very hard time talking about it. We decided it would be best to think about it for a while.

“American Sniper” is like that, I think, only better. For Iraq veterans and the rest of us, it is a movie to think about and talk about and see where it takes us. It is so good, so valuable, because it lets us decide if there is any good reason to keep doing this sort of thing.

It is difficult to imagine troops watching this as we watched “The Green Berets” way back when in Dong Ha. They might stream “American Sniper” on some hand-held device, but they sure wouldn’t give it the kind of reviews we gave John Wayne and his lame attempt to paint a horrible mistake in heroic colors.

At the end of “The Green Berets,” Wayne walks out on what is supposed to be a beach in Vietnam with a young Vietnamese boy. The sun is setting — in the east.

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They don’t make ’em like that anymore.

Related coverage:

Movie review: Clint Eastwood’s ‘American Sniper’ doesn’t flinch

Ideas: Why we fear and admire the military sniper

In ‘American Sniper,’ Sienna Miller plays an American wife

The truth about movies based on true stories

Bob Kerr can be reached at elliottkerr1099@gmail.com.