American Sniper is a polarizing movie. If you have paid attention to the stories in the media you can see all manner of opinions about whether it is good or bad. Those opinions generally fall along the lines of the politics of the person opining.
As I watched the movie, I did not get too caught up in the politics. That did not come until later reflection. What I saw was the story of a man who was trained to do a job and how his family of origin affected his ability to separate himself from his need of doing the job and looking after his own well-being.
The movie tells us the story of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper). Kyle was brought up in Texas by a very stern father who imparted a moral code that runs throughout the movie.
Early in the story, Kyle’s younger brother gets into a school yard fight with a bully. Chris comes to his brother’s aid.
That night, at the dinner table, their father tells them that there are three kinds of people in the world. There are the sheep, who will not fight and will not arm themselves. There are the wolves, who prey on the sheep. And there are the sheepdogs, who protect the sheep.
His father tells Kyle he will beat him if he is a wolf. Kyle’s brother quickly declares that Kyle did not start the fight but only came to his aid.
When he is grown, Kyle sees what is taking place in the world and decides to join the Navy and become a Seal. This is before the events of 9/11. After 9/11, Kyle is deployed to protect troops as a sniper.
One of the early scenes shows Kyle on a building, protecting a convoy coming up a street. A mother and child come from a building. The mother hands the child a grenade and Kyle has to decide whether to kill the child or not. These were the kinds of decisions that we are told these men had to make.
There are two keys to the story. One is the presence of Mustafa (Sammy Sheik). Mustafa is Kyle’s counter, a sniper for the terrorists. The movie focuses on Kyle’s attempts to kill Mustafa, while Mustafa focuses on killing Kyle. This gives that subplot a “cat and mouse” feel to it that keeps the viewers engaged.
Another key is Kyle’s relationship with his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller). With each tour, Kyle becomes more and more disconnected from his wife and family. He is constantly looking around for those who would do harm. There never seemed to be a moment when he relaxes.
Taya complains that Kyle is never emotionally home when he returns. The reason for this is what his father told him when he was a child. He is to be a sheepdog and his job is to protect the sheep. To protect the sheep he must kill the wolves and the wolves are over there and not here.
American Sniper is a highly emotional movie. It tugs at our heart strings. We feel for Chris Kyle. Director Clint Eastwood plays this angle well and we get drawn into the world of a man who has been told that his job is to protect. We admire that and we want to cheer for him. Bradley Cooper inhabits the life of Chris Kyle and provides pathos to drive home Eastwood’s direction.
Yet one of the problems in the story is it does not deal with the causes of Chris Kyle’s disease with serving. There is nothing said about why he was there. Nothing is said about the decision to go to war.
It is as if there is no reason for him to be there but to kill bad guys. And the people we are shown, who inhabit the country, are generally bad people. We are shown atrocities done, and we are led to believe that these people need to be stopped because they are going to come to America to do them to us.
Abraham Maslow famously said that, “It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
American Sniper takes a man who felt called to serve and shows how he was turned him into a hammer. That hammer did what it was supposed to do. The movie never deals with the real question of whether all of this was justified.
That may have been intentional. To not go into the reasons for the war makes this a story we like. We want to cheer for the good guy and boo the bad guy. Making Chris Kyle have a counterpoint in Mustafa provides that opportunity. But I sat watching the movie and thinking of all the harm that was done without any real justification for it.
Is Chris Kyle a hero? Yes. But the context of his heroism makes me wonder about the whole. Why did so many have to die? Why did so many have to be maimed?
Rated R for strong and disturbing war violence, and language throughout including some sexual references.
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by Jason Hall
With: Bradley Cooper (Chris Kyle), Sienna Miller (Taya Kyle), Sammy Sheik (Mustafa)