A Realistic View of American Sniper

Clint Eastwood’s new cinematic work, American Sniper, is a work of glorified patriotism. In last week’s edition of The Bagpipe, Mr. Jantomaso even described it as “awe-inspiring.” From my perspective, Mr. Eastwood seems to have picked up the torch from Kathryn Bigelow, director of the 2013 Academy Awards flop Zero Dark Thirty. Just like Bigelow, Eastwood has found a way to shimmy into several Oscar nominations by feeding Americans the narcissistic justification they need in order to feel cozy about our government’s actions abroad.

The main thrust of Mr. Jantomaso’s article, and the basis of his recommendation to go view it ourselves, was that it portrays war in a “realistic light”; in fact, he belabors this point by repeating the word “realistic” three times in his review. I certainly agree with him concerning the distressing effects of PTSD and other mental disorders following traumatic service, but the realism stops there. Mr. Jantomaso even says it himself: “Other soldiers are merely peripheral additions to the narrative, and Eastwood certainly does not try to engage with the insurgents [sic] viewpoint.” How then, I ask, can one even begin to believe that the film presents a realistic view of war when all standpoints other than Kyle’s are left out?

Was the film realistic in its omission of atrocities committed by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison? Was it realistic when it blatantly implied a rational transition from footage of the Twin Towers collapsing to Chris Kyle sitting in the transport truck in Fallujah--which conveniently skipped over two different declarations of war against two different countries a year apart, as well as the government’s purportedly pristine motivations (or lack thereof) for entering this war in the first place?  

Furthermore, was it realistic that every single time Chris Kyle had to make a tough decision on whether or not to pull the trigger, he just happened to choose correctly (I guess it’s comforting to know that every single human our soldiers killed deserved it)? Was it realistic in that every single time a gun was used in a positive light it was shown on screen, while every time it was used negatively the camera somehow didn’t want to show it?

from American Sniper, photo by USA Today

from American Sniper, photo by USA Today

Was it realistic that almost every single Arab portrayed in the movie was either shooting at them or betraying them? Or that the only thing Iraqis deserve to be called is “savages” with “evil” motivations (with nice, subtle cut-scenes from the discord in Fallujah to a civilized, ol’ fashioned auto-repair shop in the U.S.)? Honestly, the entire aura of the movie in regard to our military’s intervention in Iraq revealed an attitude reminiscent of Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden,” written in 1899.

The only substantial realism is the presentation of Kyle’s psychosis, but even the effects of this on his family are shown in a fragmentary manner. The narrative method that Eastwood employs--presenting the war through the eyes of one man--even manages to ruin the one beneficial thing I hoped would come from the movie: a debate about the nature of the Iraq War in the grand scheme. Unfortunately, the only discussions that I’ve heard are whittled down to the psychology of a single man (now, I realize that a movie with a runtime of 132 minutes cannot be comprehensive with such an issue, but I’m not the one praising it for its “realism,” am I?).

This blurry and partial version of the Iraq War is guided by the ethos of a speech given by Kyle’s father at the table one day. Using an especially inadequate metaphor, he describes only three types of people in the world: the sheep, the wolves, and the sheepdogs. There’s no doubt about which one Kyle and, still broader, the United States are supposed to be, because the narrative of Eastwood’s propaganda only gives one option: our troops, the sheepdogs, defending pure, woolly Americans from the ravenous, inhuman Arabs.

The “light” in which this film was shot leaves any viewer with only piecemeal perceptions that, in isolation, would allow them to form a slipshod and cursory determination about the Iraq War at best, and a self-serving, ego-feeding, racist, ignorant, prejudiced, and intervention-justifying model for war at worst.

At the end of his review, Mr. Jantomaso urged us to remember “the extreme sacrifices” necessary to “maintain our freedom.” American Sniper supposedly helps us carry out this task, and I have yet to read a laudatory review of the movie that omits similar phrasing. However, harkening back to Craig Mattson’s words from last week’s chapel, I insist that we harshly criticize and avoid such vacuous phrases. Their meaning has been emptied by the recorded atrocities of American foreign policy in the 20th & 21st centuries, but the peddlers of these myths have largely gone unchallenged in specific political circles. Instead, admirers of American Sniper for such reasons should be pressed to spell out exactly how our “freedoms” this side of the Atlantic were being assaulted by the existence of a régime (that both took and maintained power with U.S. support) who was not connected with 9/11 and did not have the weapons our torturous Intelligence Agency told us they did. One will soon find that, given a proper push, platitudes topple quite easily.


This article is a response to the American Sniper Movie Review by Justin Jantomaso. Read Jantomaso's article here.