What Can We Learn from American Sniper?

U.S. Army Soldiers of 1-102 Infantry, 86th Brigade Combat Team, Task Force Iron GrayU.S. Army Soldiers of 1-102 Infantry, 86th Brigade Combat Team, Task Force Iron Gray. (Photo: isafmedia flickr CC)

In just over a month after its release, the film American Sniper has made over $400 million and is now the highest-grossing American war movie of all time. It received six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Bradley Cooper), and Best Adapted Screenplay. The Clint Eastwood-directed film recounts the experiences of Chris Kyle, a U.S. Navy SEAL (Sea, Air, and Land) who served four tours of duty in Iraq. The movie is based on Kyle’s memoir of the same name (co-written by Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice). Kyle is the most lethal sniper in American military history. During his four deployments to Iraq, he logged 160 confirmed kills of enemy soldiers and insurgents. The real total is definitely higher, but 160 is the official number that can be confirmed.

Not surprisingly, the film has become a political issue. Many on the right hail Kyle as a hero serving God and country by taking down enemies that meant America harm. Some on the left have called Kyle a psychopath and a coward and the film nothing more than war propaganda. As usual, the truth is somewhere in the middle. In a recent radio interview, Cooper stated that he and Eastwood did not view the material as either pro- or anti-war, but rather a character study of Chris Kyle.

Kyle comes off better in the film than he did in his own book. On the page, he seemed to be trying a little too hard to convince the reader that he was just a Texas good ol’ boy who happened to be very adept at killing people. Kyle the author dealt little with the emotional toll that the war took on him and his family. While he was certainly not dismissive of those with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), he seemed to give little thought to the idea that he himself might suffer from it.

On the screen, though, Bradley Cooper conveys a degree of emotional depth not apparent in the book. We see Kyle genuinely struggle with some of the horrible realities of war, including wounded friends and circumstances that place mothers and children in his rifle’s crosshairs. Though he tries to maintain a stoicism not uncommon among soldiers and veterans, Cooper plays Kyle as a man clearly affected over time by PTSD but either unwilling or unsure of how to deal with it.

In one moving and telling scene, Kyle is home from Iraq and picking up his car in a mechanic’s garage. A young man approaches and tells Kyle that the two met in Fallujah when the unnamed man was a badly wounded Marine and Kyle carried him to medical attention, saving his life. The young man pulls up his pant leg to reveal an artificial leg, then tells Kyle’s young son that his father is a hero. Cooper-as-Kyle looks as if he’s about to crawl out of his skin with discomfort as the former Marine invites him to visit the local Veterans Affairs office and spend time with other vets. This is clearly not something Kyle is ready to consider just yet, and he cannot get away fast enough from the young Marine.

The real emotional pull of the film should come from Kyle’s interactions with his wife, Taya, and their two young children. However, this is one aspect of Kyle’s life that the book handles better than the film. Taya Kyle wrote several passages in her husband’s book that offer her perspective on his wartime experiences and her struggles during his four combat tours. Her story is far more powerful in her own words. Actress Sienna Miller does a fine job as Mrs. Kyle in the movie, but once her husband begins to deploy regularly, she has little to do besides make phone calls and constantly tell Chris how much war is changing him. The changes in Kyle are obvious to everyone watching the film, and Taya’s role gets repetitive. In the book, however, she provided valuable insight into the war’s effects on her husband that he himself barely acknowledged.

The filmmakers naturally took some dramatic license with Kyle’s story. As much as they wanted to honor Kyle with the movie, they still needed to make an exciting and watchable film. As a result, an enemy sniper barely mentioned in the book becomes a major villain that Kyle is determined to hunt down and kill. Once he accomplishes this, he immediately phones his wife to tell her that he’s ready to come home, and the viewer understands that he is declaring himself finished with war and the Navy. He returns home and soon begins working with wounded veterans, taking them out to target shoot. As we see, this helps both the wounded vets and Kyle himself. Ultimately and tragically, this work cost the real Chris Kyle his life when he was shot dead by a troubled former Marine now on trial for murder. The film ends on the morning of February 2, 2013, with Kyle meeting the man who would kill him later that day (but not before we see him as a now happy-go-lucky husband and father that shows no signs at all of PTSD).

What can we take away from American Sniper? Those interested in an action-packed war movie won’t be disappointed. Ultimately, though, the filmmakers succeed mostly in offering what Bradley Cooper and Clint Eastwood intended: a character study of one man’s experience in war. Cooper’s solid acting brings Chris Kyle to life, giving us an idea of the toll constant deployments and combat take on even the most elite warriors and their families. Perhaps the film does something of a disservice to the men and women who continue to struggle with PTSD by wrapping everything up too quickly and showing Kyle as content and carefree just before his murder. The film also does nothing to humanize the Iraqis, whom Kyle called “savages” in both the book and the movie. While there was certainly no nuance to Kyle’s view, we must also remember that he spent years seeing humanity – Iraqi and otherwise – at its very worst.

Ultimately, combat troops like Kyle quickly forget about causes or political goals in wartime and usually focus on fighting to protect their buddies and themselves. As a sniper, Kyle was incredibly efficient at doing just that, and there are countless American veterans alive today because Kyle was providing cover for them as they moved through Iraq. Regardless of how we feel about American policy in Iraq over the past twelve years, American Sniper reminds us of the terrible things we ask our troops to do in wartime and the long-term emotional toll that being good at a job like Chris Kyle’s can take.

About the Author

Benjamin T. Arrington

Benjamin Todd Arrington is a career historian living in Ohio. He holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and studies American political history with an emphasis on the Civil War era and the early Republican Party.

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