Friday, March 27. 2015
I finally got around to seeing Clint Eastwood's American Sniper film yesterday. It took me so long mostly because my wife, who usually picks the films we see, wanted no part of it: I had to go alone, something I hadn't done since I caught the "last chance" showing of Pedro Almodovar's The Skin I Live In in 2011. I didn't argue very hard. Everything I had read suggested that the movie has many problems and few virtues. More importantly, I read Nicholas Schmidle's profile of the sniper in question, Chris Kyle (In the Crosshairs), so I had a pretty good idea what the story was going to be. The only question was whether director Clint Eastwood might add some nuance and conflict that Kyle doesn't seem to have ever grasped. But after Eastwood's senior moment at the GOP convention, and given his occasional infatuation with American jingoism, that wasn't guaranteed.
It turns out that the movie is remarkably compressed (despite a 2:20 running time). It starts with what became the trailer, a scene with Kyle on a rooftop in Fallujah contemplating shooting a child and/or his mother as armored vehicles inch down a rubble-strewn street with US soldiers methodically going house-to-house, kicking doors in. He ultimately kills both, but before the shots are fired, the scene is interrupted for a little background.
We see a pre-teen Kyle hunting with his father, and fighting with schoolkids. At the family dinner table, his father explains that there are three types of people in the world: sheep, wolves, and sheep dogs, who protect the sheep from the wolves -- Kyle's worldview in a nut shell. Grown up, Kyle rides bulls and broncs in a rodeo. Then, after a news report of a terror attack he signs up for the Navy Seals. We then get many scenes of sadistic basic training, a bar break where he picks up a wife, intense sniper training, 9/11, and his first tour in Iraq, where his first kills were that child and mother.
The bulk of the film recounts his four tours in Iraq, each staged with an intense action sequence, separated by brief returns home as his family grows. Two of the action sequences involve talking to his wife on the phone, so she gets in on the war experience. As a sniper, Kyle lurks patiently on rooftops and in buildings, surveying the war calmly, methodically picking off "bad guys." But over time he seeks more action, so he joins in on clearing buildings, and is close by as two of his closest buddies get shot (one killed instantly, the other survived but was blinded and died in a later surgery).
The action intensifies, with the final battle ultimately won by Mother Nature as a sandstorm engulfed Sadr City. That was the one where he made an "impossibly long shot" to kill his nemesis, a notorious Syrian sniper, only to have his building surrounded by swarming enemies with AK-47s -- the intense action interrupted by a call to the wife to tell her he's "ready to come home now." Of course, the crowds ate it up. The postwar scenes were anticlimactic: at first he showed signs of PTSD, but they fade away as he dedicates his life to helping other veterans. He takes one multiple-amputee to the shooting range, and when the disabled vet hits the target, he announces that he feels like he got his balls back. Salvation through shooting becomes Kyle's cause. In the last scene, he gets into a truck with another PTSD-damaged vet. Then the movie cuts to black, revealing that the vet murdered Kyle that day. The movie ends with footage of Kyle's funeral, and indeed it is touching. Just not clear for what.
The film is based on Kyle's autobiography, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, written with two co-authors. The book came out in 2012 and was a bestseller before his death in 2013, and has sold many more copies (more than 1.2 million) since. The movie doesn't show anything about Kyle's post-Navy business or how the book and his self-promotion affected his life. The movie doesn't bring up Kyle's claim to have shot looters after Hurricane Katrina from atop the Superdome, or his story about "punching out Scruff Face" -- Jesse Ventura, who successfully sued Kyle's estate for libel (see Nicholas Schmidle: The Ventura Verdict).
This would be a good time to quote Wikipedia's paragraph on "Historical accuracy":
"The Butcher" is an "Al-Qaeda enforcer" who is shown attacking a child -- the son of a "sheik" who gave info to Americans after Kyle's team broke into his house -- with a drill. He is killed in the firefight after the scene with the weapons stash. Mustafa is an enemy sniper -- an Olympic-winning marksman from Syria who appears at least three times in the movie, becoming a personal obsession for Kyle. Kyle kills him with his 2100-yard long shot, as part of the climactic battle scene.
In other words, each and every significant encounter Kyle has with any Iraqi was invented for dramatic effect. (Presumably at least some of the anonymous, long-distance sniper kills come from the book. Kyle was credited with 160 kills. The movie shows maybe a dozen.) No doubt the fiction adds to the movie's drama. Perhaps it also whitewashes the US war effort, but Kyle was never more than a small cog in the military machine -- his rank after four tours was Chief Petty Officer, basically a sergeant -- and his approach to the war was so simplistic you hardly expect anything more: kill "bad guys"! Who are the "bad guys"? The ones who are trying to kill you.
One of Donald Rumsfeld's most indelible one-liners was that "you go to war with the army you have, not necessarily the one you want." The actual army that Kyle belonged to is defined simply: they are trained to be extraordinarily lethal, when deployed they are very focused on their own self-defense, and their primary defense strategy is to be as aggressive as possible. No one in Kyle's army questions why they are in Iraq. No one doubts their right to be where they are or go where they want. And everyone is deeply affronted any time they meet any form of resistance. No one recognizes that other points of view are possible. For Kyle, in particular, everyone he kills is evil; if not, he wouldn't have killed them. The whole movie, from the sheepdog story on, is testament to Kyle's moral certainty, and the tearful funeral excess just serves to elevate his moral certainty to the nation as a whole. And that's why the movie elicits such a solemn reaction from a certain kind of American: the one who believes that America is the greatest nation in the world, so great that the rest of the world can (or should) prostrate itself at our feet.
Nothing in the movie gives you a chance to question either the politics or the wisdom of Bush's invasion and occupation of Iraq, let alone the wider trajectory of US involvement in the region. Even though most of the movie takes place in a foreign land, it never leaves an American mindset. For that reason it works as propaganda: even without explicit lies it reaffirms the war by not questioning it. What makes that worse is that the trajectory of understanding the Iraq war started to change with the Surge in 2007. The early period, 2003-04, was eventually viewed as an unmitigated disaster, but that boiled down to three things:
It's hard to remember that when Bush et al. conjured up this war, even though they led with the fear card, they tried to present the war like we'd be doing the Iraqis one big favor. That sentiment was one of the first casualties of the war. There's an old joke that goes: it's hard to remember that your mission was to drain the swamp when you're ass-deep in alligators. In the early days, Iraq was seen as an epic adventure in nation building. In the end, it's no more than alligator killing, which is probably why the SEALs are the last soldiers standing tall.
Moreover, the worldview has changed. Early in the War on Terror, the "bad guys" were few: the religious fanatics of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the Baathist elites of Iraq and Syria, a few others -- as much oppressors of their own people as enemies of the US. However, it turns out that the US was never "greeted as liberators" -- that everywhere the US bombed turned into enemy territory. That should have led us to question our entire approach, indeed who we are, but not being capable of introspection, we've changed out view of them instead. Looking at the US response to ISIS, even we can imagine no upside: just a long slog of killing a neverending supply of "bad guys," because once we enter a region, practically everyone turns into "bad guys."
Of course, if you're not entranced by this latest, most vicious twist on "the American religion," it's possible to view American Sniper differently. It is a celebration of a cold blooded killer, but it also details his descent into PTSD, as he turns into someone his wife at one point says she no longer recognizes. Kyle at least saves himself by doubling down on the militaristic pietism that made him rich and famous, but he is surrounded by other vets who can't make that work -- including the one who killed him. It takes an extraordinary amount of empathy to watch this movie and conclude that the war has been disastrous for Iraqi families, even though there are scenes that show just that. But it should be easier to see how expensive the toll on American lives has been, whether you do or do not accord any special value to the lives of soldiers. Kyle should be viewed as a tragic figure in American history. He sure is no hero.
 Some links from previous posts:
We can add a few more:
One more thought about the movie. One thing that is loosely implied is that Kyle got a perverse satisfaction out of sniping, at least for a while. Bradley Cooper plays Kyle as exceptionally modest -- lots of other characters dub him "The Legend" and offer other accolades, but Kyle mostly sloughs them off. Even though he's always teamed with a spotter, sniping is patient and methodical work, not something full of adrenaline rushes. But as he goes from tour to tour, he keeps getting drawn back for more and more -- although he never articulates it, there is something to sniping that he never experienced before and that once he experienced it would be missing from his life. It reminded me of a remarkable interview in the second season of The Fall, where serial killer Paul Prescott explains the intense sensation of living that he feels when he kills someone. Of course, Prescott killed far fewer people than Kyle, and did so furtively against the law whereas Kyle was on his government's payroll -- the difference was that Kyle never had to hide what he was doing -- but both were similar in the meticulous, artful way they set up and dispatched their victims. (You can find a summary of the episode here, although it skips the part I'm referring to.)
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