I saw “American Sniper” last night. It is not a great movie but it is a powerful one. It had the power to leave a packed Manhattan movie house silent—really, completely silent—as they stared at the closing credits and tried to absorb the meaning of what they’d seen. They filed out silently, too. It’s not so hard to leave an audience in a good mood or hungry for dinner, but this silence spoke of a real thoughtfulness. It was a mixed crowd, young and old.
In the movie the sniper, Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, exists for one reason: to stop or kill belligerents who are in the act of attempting to take out American soldiers. If they are attempting to aim an armed rocket-propelled grenade, or they are themselves snipers or al Qaeda fighters, they are in his crosshairs. The American sniper does not shoot those who are not immediately aiming to harm someone. He uses discernment. If he doesn’t he’ll be in legal and military trouble. When he trains his weapon on a mother and son he does not want to shoot. When he sees the grenade the mother passes to her son as they advance toward a U.S. convoy, he shoots. When an Iraqi sniper kills one of his friends he sets himself to finding him and taking him out.
Kyle completely believes, and the viewer is persuaded, that his duty is protecting people, saving the lives of his troops. That’s his daily job and he does it with discipline, talent and professionalism. He’s so good at it he comes to be seen as and called a legend. He is celebrated for his kills; he’d rather someone kept a count of his saves. When after his last tour he sees a Navy psychiatrist who asks him about things he wishes he hadn’t done, he says, “Oh, that’s not me. No.”
“What’s not you?” the doctor asks, with the bland yet piercing look psychiatrists get in movies.
“I was just protecting my guys, they were trying to kill . . . our soldiers and I . . . I’m willing to meet my Creator and answer for every shot that I took.” He adds, “The thing that . . . haunts me are all the guys that I couldn’t save.” That is both the story he told himself and the story he thinks is true.
The movie seems to have pinged off something in the American psyche, with its huge box-office opening. (All hail Clint Eastwood, running the tables at age 84.) Some of the reasons would be obvious. It is based on a bestselling book, the essential facts of which are generally known. We are increasingly a nation of veterans. It is an action story, a war story, with Eastwood directing and Bradley Cooper as the star. But it is also a story about love of country, and what some of those who love it most sacrifice to show that love. Kyle, the movie makes clear, joined up to defend America after al Qaeda began making its moves. When he was a boy his father taught him not to be a sheep or a wolf but a sheepdog—a protector of others. The movie is a meditation on this. It is interesting that Americans want such a meditation.
On the Iraq war it takes no stand. While the film glorifies war—all battlefield heroics, by being admirable, glorify war—there is a persistent antiwar presence, and not only because depicting the damage and dislocation done to those visited by war is an antiwar statement. Chris Kyle’s brother, on leaving Iraq after his own tour, makes a statement suggestion the U.S. is in the wrong place. A heartbroken mother at a stateside funeral seems to cry out for peace. Kyle’s close friend shares his doubts. Kyle doesn’t share them but he hears them, and Eastwood lets them echo out. This is a fair-minded movie. It is not anyone’s propaganda.
It is not a great movie because it is formulaic. We see the scenes we’ve always seen. Boot camp is hell, Kyle and his wife meet cute in a bar near the base, etc. It is all done in a solid and serviceable way but often looks like the latest iteration of what’s been done before. It is being compared, favorably, to 2008’s “The Hurt Locker,” but that movie was a higher form of art, full of surprise and edgier, more confounding. It’s one thing to show Bradley Cooper clenching his jaw at a child’s backyard birthday party, but it was more powerful when Jeremy Renner mindlessly pushes a huge shopping cart through a huge food store with a thousand breakfast cereals and that’s his job now, two days out of Iraq, to choose the right cereal.
Here is one unanticipated cost of how we wage modern war. We ask a lot of our troops emotionally in terms of how we schedule their tours. If during World War II we had our soldiers serve nine or 10 months invading Europe, witnessing carnage and taking part in bloody battles . . . and then had them return for two or three months to banal, Benny Goodman-playing America . . . then sent them back to the Battle of the Bulge and the liberation of the death camps . . . then back home for a few months—well, that would be asking rather a lot for U.S. troops to emotionally sustain and absorb. The modern, relatively short tour punctuated by home leave is meant to be compassionate and is wholly understandable as policy: Soldiers have families, including children who desperately need them. But you can’t expect people to go from horror—constant alert, fear, adrenaline, life-and-death choices—to common peace and ordinariness, and expect them to immediately act the part of the “normal person.” My father was a U.S. army private in Italy late in World War II, and the one thing he talked about was the long ship ride home when the war ended, with thousands of other GIs—decompressing with other guys in cots, reading, smoking, yakking, getting themselves ready for America again. They had time to acclimate. Now it’s defuse the bomb in Bagdad on Monday and go to the Lobster Shack in central Jersey on Wednesday. That is asking a lot, and we ask it over and over.
Connected to that, a problem with the film so egregious it must be noted. The part of the one central woman, the wife, is so poorly done. She is a pretty young woman who means nothing, who is neither impressive as a character nor poignant nor wholly fleshed out, and every time you see her she is whining at her husband and crying because he is here but not here, he is damaged, he’s got to get with it and be a better father. She weeps, she complains. The role is so poorly written, or directed, or edited, or conceived. The actress seems to have done her best with what she was given. It doesn’t seem to occur to the filmmakers that while the Chris Kyle character does not understand how spooked and detached from family life he has become, she never understands he’s been living inside a violent video game for nine months, only it wasn’t a game, and the things he saw would have changed him, changed anyone, forever.
And yes, everyone noticed the artificial baby, and it was a silly way to save money and eliminate takes, if that was the purpose. You can always hire someone who acts like an infant. Next time try Seth Rogen.