War films have been a staple of American cinema for years. Director Clint Eastwood has even starred in a few of those films himself… but his directorial look at war has a different vantage point (Gran Turino, Flags of Our Fathers). American Sniper is another one of those movies about war but also not about war. We see the conflict in Iraq through first person vantage points, complete with the tension and terror, but we also see the impact of that war at home (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty ). It’s a different view than we normally get from the news, and one that asks us to consider how the lives of those who protect our freedom are forever changed by the costs of war.
After watching footage of terrorist attacks on TV in the late 1990s, brash Texan Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) enters the Navy Seals, and stoically pursues training as a sniper. His call to duty is immediate, absolute, and all-consuming, even as he enters into a life-long love affair with Taya Renae (Sienna Miller), who serves as his anchor to the real world. The attacks on the U.S. steer him to Iraq for the first of four tours just hours after his wedding to Taya, and their relationship (and Kyle’s work) consume the bulk of the film.
The trailer lays out Kyle’s first kill: the mother and son duo who attempt to take out an American convoy with an IED. He’s shaken (“this isn’t what I thought it would be like”) yet he understands that it’s us-or-them. He is a sheepdog in his father’s categorization of people (sheep, wolves, or sheepdogs) and he holds it up as his duty to protect others, to watch over them. Ironically, the first person he kills is a child who is moved to action by the direction of his parents (probably his father given the paternalistic culture); Kyle’s life is directed by the intense value placed on protection and honor instilled in his childhood by his father and it will cause him to experience both ultimate success and failure. But his value system, instilled in hunting and life, will place a value on helping others that conflicts with his desire to raise a family with Taya- that’s the power of Eastwood’s depiction of the “real” conflict.
Some of the film is practically unwatchable for me. I’ve been drawn to stories of war that struggle with it like Zero and Fury, but as a doctor later implies to Kyle, there are things you can’t unsee. Whether it’s who he kills or who he watches die around him, from Iraqi citizens to his own comrades, the weight of death burdens Kyle, snowballing into an impossible weight of unresolved pain, anger, and sadness. This is PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder)- the real beast that soldiers return with that no one can “see.” Given the images still rolling before my eyes from watching the film, it’s almost unbearable to consider what these men and women have experienced, and continue to relive, as they return home. And this is the collective debt we owe as a country and as a society, to consider how we can support them, how we can help them, how we should minister to the families of our soldiers.
Sure, Eastwood took a true story and pulled the right levers to make us see, to ask us to consider. But his direction, and Cooper’s portrayal, are excellent, and emotionally enthralling. Which makes the tragedy even deeper, the lasting impression stronger. War IS hell (I’d argue so is working the streets as a police officer or a fireman) but what about the demons those soldiers bring home? What about the cost of taking another’s life, or watching a friend die? Is July 4th or Memorial Day really enough?
Do we owe our soldiers something more?