The Pro-War Verus Anti-War Debate on ‘American Sniper’ Misses the Point

It’s impossible to observe sniper Chris Kyle’s (Bradley Cooper) gradual descent into madness and believe that Clint Eastwood promotes an explicitly pro-war message.

In response to the many critics that claim American Sniper (2014) glorifies the military-industrial complex, director Clint Eastwood affirms that “the biggest anti-war statement” he could make is to show what war does to “the family and the people that have to go back into civilian life.” This response is at once an indictment of the Iraq War upon which his film is based, war in general, and the many moviegoers that misinterpret the message of his film. Never one to back down from criticism — remember when he told Spike Lee to “shut his face” after Lee criticized his WWII films for not featuring any African-American characters? — Eastwood has defiantly defended American Sniper.

Much of the controversy surrounding American Sniper seems to have been created by pundits that use the film to push their political agendas. Conservative blogger Erick Erickson, for example, celebrates the film for its willingness to shine a light on the sacrifice of soldiers, but he takes it too far when he props it up as a “pro-America war movie.” Liberal talk show host Bill Maher similarly categorizes the film as pro-war, and then unfairly condemns Eastwood for his positive portrayal of a “psychopath patriot.” The back-and-forth between both sides is headache-inducing, and if anything can be gleaned from the discourse, it’s that people should stop taking about movies they haven’t seen.

What critics on both sides fail to grasp when they attack American Sniper is that, in the words of director Kathryn Bigelow, whose film Zero Dark Thirty (2012) received similar controversy for its depiction of torture, “depiction is not endorsement”, and it’s possible for Eastwood to make a film about a soldier that supports the Iraq War without Eastwood having to support it himself.

Those that have seen American Sniper should be able to comprehend that it honors the war film tradition, in which filmmakers tell stories about soldiers’ experiences to demonstrate war’s destruction. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) did it for WWI, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) for WWII, Pork Chop Hill (1959) for Korea, Coming Home for Vietnam (1978), and now American Sniper for Iraq. The purpose of these films is to show the bravery and sacrifice of the men and women that serve, and that they give so much of themselves for so little in return. Each war film is specific to a time and place, and of course, Hollywood is not the only entertainment industry that explores the wars that are waged by its country’s government. However, despite differences in detail, there has never been an effective war film that hasn’t highlighted war’s destruction, because there has never been a war that hasn’t caused mass destruction.

In American Sniper, the soldier is Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), a Navy SEAL that serves four tours of duty in Iraq. He is passionate about the mission, and truly believes that it’s his duty to fight for America’s safety. His fellow soldiers call him the “Legend” because of his skills. He is the most lethal sniper in U.S. history, with over 160 confirmed kills. The film chronicles his youth in Texas, his relationship with his wife Taya (Sienna Miller), his time in training and on the battlefield, and the tragic aftermath.

As Kyle returns to Iraq for the second, third, and fourth time, he slowly loses his mind. We see the toll war has on his psyche, which inevitably impacts his family. Taya begs him to stay home, but he continues to fight, and there are many reasons why he does this. It is well-known that some soldiers are addicted to the adrenaline produced by war, and discover that the thrill of the battlefield is difficult to recapture in ordinary life. After their service, soldiers often struggle to cope with everyday existence. Some are uncomfortable with family interactions, and feel that they lack a significant purpose. Much of this stems from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), from which one in three returning soldiers suffer, as well as a lack of opportunities and community support. (See Wounded Warrior Project for more information.)

It’s impossible to observe Kyle’s gradual descent into madness and believe that Eastwood explicitly promotes a pro-war message. Contrary to what certain circles claim, American Sniper is not a product of the far right’s jingoistic propaganda machine, and Kyle is not portrayed as a triumphant hero. Rather, the film critically examines certain conceptions of heroism and masculinity.

At a time when fictional Marvel superheroes have become synonymous with heroism, and action films like The Expendables (2010) give off the impression that “real” men are indestructible, Eastwood cuts through the bullshit to show us what really happens when people choose to fight for a perceived greater good. Kyle, as inhabited by Cooper, is the “American Sniper”, but unlike in the fictional Hollywood movies or violent video games that teenagers regularly consume, the killing comes at a cost. In addition to the hundreds of people that Kyle kills with his rifle, there is the irrevocable damage to his personal life and psyche. Ultimately, Eastwood leaves it up to the viewer to decide if it’s worth it, but given that Kyle was shot to death on 2 February 2013 by another American soldier that suffered from PTSD, it’s doubtful that anyone would think it is.

American Sniper is similar to Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) and Gran Torino (2008), two films that also take a hard look at what it means to be a hero. These films, like most of Eastwood’s work, deconstruct ideas of masculinity and are extremely critical of gun violence. American Sniper takes it a step further, however, because unlike the other films, it’s based on a true story. This time, we cannot turn away and say, “It’s only a movie.” As a result, Eastwood challenges us to confront our obsession with violence, and the ways politicians irresponsibly associate violence with heroism.

At times, the film is not as powerful as its ideas. Screenwriter Jason Hall crams Kyle’s entire life into a 132 minute movie, and Eastwood doesn’t always find a successful balance between the war front and the home front. The scenes in Iraq are incredibly tense, but the scenes at home sometimes feel forced. Still, after disappointments like Invictus (2009), Hereafter (2010), J. Edgar (2011), and Jersey Boys (2014), it’s nice to see Eastwood back in fine form.

Cooper carries the film on his shoulders, and his performance as Kyle is quietly moving. Beneath the tough physical exterior, he gradually expresses Kyle’s deep pain and psychological suffering, and he does most of it with his eyes. I am reminded of Adrien Brody’s brilliant work in The Pianist (2002), in which we watch the disillusionment of a man as he deals with the horrors of war. Miller is similarly wrenching as Taya, a conflicted wife that loves her husband and wishes that he would stop fighting.

You’d think that Universal would want to capitalize on the film’s surprise box office success by providing more substantial bonus features on the DVD/Blu-ray combo back, but sadly the purchase only comes with two mediocre behind-the-scenes featurettes. However, Universal has announced that one dollar of each purchase will be donated to the Wounded Warrior Project, which should be enough of an incentive for most fans of the film to buy the DVD.

American Sniper is a difficult film to watch. It reminds us that countless lives were destroyed by the Iraq War. It reminds us that many of the soldiers that served suffer from PTSD and receive little treatment to this day. It reminds us that being branded a hero isn’t always worth the sacrifice. These are harsh truths, but they must be told, if only to prevent future men and women from following in Kyle’s tragic path.

RATING 6 / 10