I was finally able to see the film American Sniper and find out what all the fuss is about. As I write this, Sniper has gone over $200 million in its second weekend of wide release, making it the highest-grossing January release ever, and already the all-time highest-grossing war film.
The theater was packed when I was there for the matinee. In terms of getting adults of all ages to go sit in a crowded theater to see a movie – not just to escort children to one – the last time I recall a movie having this persistent power to pack theaters was when The Passion of the Christ hit wide release.
The movie is unquestionably resonating with audiences. The reason is clear, once you’ve seen it. American Sniper shows us the Iraq war through the eyes of the American people who have fought it. The soldiers who went and the families who sent them, and whose hearts spent tour after tour in yearning limbo with them – that’s whose reality we are invited to inhabit. We see the people not as victims, not as blind predators, not as one-dimensional pawns in a morality play, but simply as who they are.
We see them, in fact, as we see them. These are the Americans we know. In real life, we recognize what’s ordinary in each other. We know the types we come in, and we don’t think it’s awful; we think it’s normal – even great.
The hysterical overreaction of the left to American Sniper is explained by the way Sniper takes this view of ordinary American-ness for granted. Consider the early part of the film, when we watch Chris Kyle as a boy learning from his father: learning to shoot, learning the ethic of a man’s calling to protect. Director Clint Eastwood presents this passage briefly, matter-of-factly; purposefully, but without sentimentality. He lets it be what it is – what it was in the life of Chris Kyle – relying on the viewer to absorb and interpret it as he will.
This is a quintessentially masculine way of communicating. The total package – the content and the method of presenting it – are what the political left has dedicated itself to demeaning, belittling, and vilifying for the last 100 years. Leftists seem driven to attack it; when they are writing stories or making movies, they have to “contextualize” and denature it, with irony or cynicism, imputed hypocrisy or ideological moralizing. They can’t let it stand on its own.
This appears to be, in part, because when it does stand on its own, presented as nothing more nor less than what it is, the American people respond to it with enthusiastic assent.
A number of things struck me throughout the movie, but I will mention just a few. Go see it for yourself. I mean it: go. Bradley Cooper is fantastic as Chris Kyle. I don’t think you’ll find an off gesture or tone. I wasn’t sure I’d warm up to Sienna Miller as Taya Kyle, but she won me over. Sammy Sheik as Mustafa, the Olympic shooter and opposing sniper, is superb in a nearly wordless role. Eastwood has done an excellent job with sets and production; the environment of combat in Iraq looks realistic, rather than something oddly lit and dream-like (a conceit of cinematography I’m growing tired of). The score is unobtrusive, which is actually high praise.
The Iraq war as we saw it
On to the main points. First, as the title implies, it seemed to me watching Sniper that this is the movie about the Iraq war that is really about the Iraq war, as perceived and experienced by Americans. The Iraq war was about fighting the terrorist threat over there, and not letting it get over here. That’s the basic narrative in the heads of average Americans. It was the basic narrative in Chris Kyle’s head.
Eastwood doesn’t have to develop that case in the movie. He understands that it’s already in the minds of his audience. The tin-eared vituperation of the left against the war’s concept, built into most other movies about the Iraq war, isn’t compelling and never will be. Nor do people want to go see movies that depict the awfulness of war without letting the soldiers in it be there for any good reason. Even heroism has its limits, if it’s not for anything.
The big “secret” about American Sniper is that its audience arrives in wave after wave of Americans who already knew that the Iraq war was for something. My own perception is that most people have been ambivalent about important aspects of the war: big things, like its constitutionality, or whether Iraq was the right priority, or the troubling precedent set by invasion and regime-change on such a scale. It’s not mindless jingoism going on here. It’s more a matter of difficult decisions being made in the face of threat, ambivalence, and uncertainty.
Chris Kyle’s place in that was one of the places we go through in the cycle of life. He was the young man who was sent. He was also, and equally, the young man who chose to go, because – in his father’s terse formulation – he was not a sheep, or a wolf, but one of the sheepdogs. He was there to protect.
War as a passage
That brings us to a second thing that struck me as the story unfolded. Each person has to decide – if the choice ends up being his – when his “watch” as a sheepdog is fulfilled. War, the necessity for it, the mindset for it, fits into life; not the other way around. Clint Eastwood lets this reality be what it is, rather than trying to arrange the story to make war a mythical abyss: something no one can come back from.
We do see the horrors of war in American Sniper. We see the real tactical failures that beset our Iraqi operations in the mid-2000s. Eastwood doesn’t gloss over them. The viewer reminds himself, faced with these things, that this is a story from life, and there won’t be last-minute miracles with swelling music.
But Eastwood isn’t trying to sell us an ideological morality package about war. Men do, in fact, strategize about and manage war. They come and go from it. The real story of our involvement in Iraq reflects that, just as Chris Kyle’s part in it reflects that. Eastwood allows his movie to.
When does a man know that his part in the specialized, gut-wrenching human trauma of war has been completed? When does he know it’s time to turn over the watch? Reality for most of our volunteer soldiers is that they don’t face that turning point as helpless victims. They face it as men or women bearing wounds, but making decisions from a matrix that encompasses a most human past and future. Eastwood lets that be what it is too: not a pathology but a passage, requiring wisdom and heart-searching, and maybe a consultation with God.
(As an aside, Chris Kyle’s interactions with the veterans he works with after his return home are some of the finest scenes in the movie, unsentimental but very moving.)
Setting the sniper’s expertise in its place
One more thing I will mention here. Maybe this leaped out at me because I know of so many people now who are just getting acquainted with firearms and shooting. Early in the story, Chris Kyle’s father has him recite the adage, “Aim small, miss small.” Those who have been taught to shoot know that this isn’t just a way of encouraging yourself; it’s a real “thing.” If you’ve got your gun sighted properly and know it well, then the smaller the point you’re aiming at, the less you’ll miss by, all things being equal.
I think Eastwood’s choice to briefly clarify that, in a scene at a firing range that goes by fast enough to avoid coming off as “documentary,” is a brilliant touch.
It makes sense to clarify the point in a movie about a sniper, of course. I thought back reflexively to Mel Gibson’s The Patriot, in which his Revolutionary War character Benjamin Martin has his sons recite the same adage before setting up an ambush for British troops. The Gibson movie trusted viewers to understand it. But Sniper explains it, and thereby helps viewers who may not have started with that understanding to see that there is an expertise here: a real discipline, cultivated for a purpose.
In doing that, the little theme bridges the gap between reality and legend. American Sniper isn’t a movie about magical shooting. Letting the audience in on the expertise side of it is a way of subtly establishing that. American Sniper is a movie about “overwatch.” At one level, that refers to the tactical detail Kyle and men like him were assigned to for so many months at a time, watching over Marines on infantry patrol with a ready rifle and scope.
But Kyle and his fellows in arms recognized, as his family and his nation do, that “overwatch” has a meaning at a different level. Overwatch is an ethic, a way of life, for the citizen-soldier.
It must be painful to have tried furiously for so many years, as the Western left has, to deconstruct and devalue that reality, and then find that so many Americans have rejected your life’s work as if it never even happened. But so millions of Americans have.