“[I]t may be said that the weary melancholy underlying Lawrence of Arabia stems from the stupefying apprehension that, whereas England may have been doomed to civilize the world, no power under heaven can civilize England.” —James Baldwin
“I don’t really care what people think of me.” —Chris Kyle
The New York Times review of “Lawrence of Arabia” from 1962 complains that we don’t really get to know the titular character, a fault Bosley Crowther blames on “the concept of telling the story of this self-tortured man against a background of action that has the characteristic of a mammoth Western film.”
“American Sniper” feels the same way, both in character and background. For most people, consideration of the similarities between Western expansion and America’s permanent presence in the Middle East starts and ends with how one feels about “cowboy president” jokes. But in less self-conscious times, no less than the venerable Robert Kaplan once referred to Little Bighorn as “the 9/11 of its day.” In a 2004 Wall Street Journal article titled “Indian Country,” he referred to a new kind of small-scale independent warfare:
An overlooked truth about the war on terrorism, and the war in Iraq in particular, is that they both arrived too soon for the American military: before it had adequately transformed itself from a dinosauric, Industrial Age beast to a light and lethal instrument skilled in guerrilla warfare, attuned to the local environment in the way of the 19th-century Apaches. My mention of the Apaches is deliberate. For in a world where mass infantry invasions are becoming politically and diplomatically prohibitive … the American military is back to the days of fighting the Indians.
Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) represents something like this aspiration. He’s learned the Apache ways, you might say. Snipers operate in a fairly independent way, which fits his personality. Nicknamed “The Legend,” the deadliest sniper in American history, Kyle was on his first of four tours when President George W. Bush declared Iraq a free country, which, if you’re feeling cheeky, makes this a kind of cop movie.
In his comments on “Lawrence of Arabia” in The Devil Finds Work, James Baldwin describes how the movie makes barbaric acts comprehensible. The famous “No prisoners!” moment of mass slaughter, he says, makes sense in the context of Lawrence being raped at the hands of the Turks.
But there is no analogous moment in “American Sniper.” Chris Kyle’s humiliations are all vicarious—he joined up after the 1998 embassy bombings. The “No prisoners!” moment—the moment the audience is supposed to understand the rules are different—is the very first scene. It’s the one depicted in the trailer which (it isn’t giving too much away to say) ends in him shooting a child, then a woman, who threaten a convoy Kyle is protecting.
But the fact remains that T.E. Lawrence probably wasn’t raped, Iraq didn’t have nuclear weapons, Chris Kyle probably lied about a lot of stuff, and he doesn’t actually shoot a kid in the semi-autobiography on which the movie is based.
Towards the end of the movie, Kyle returns home and visits a psychiatrist, who says “the Navy has credited you with over 160 kills.” Actually, the Navy has credited him with 160 kills, with 255 claimed. “The thing that haunts me is all the guys I couldn’t save,” Cooper’s Kyle tells the doctor. Real Kyle, in the book, replies, “I only wish I had killed more.” It’s hard not to notice that these are opposites.
Does this sort of thing matter? Be careful what you answer, because one’s opinion on “American Sniper” can be controversial. The usual suspects have dusted off a word they only use for things they don’t like, “glorify,” to describe how the film treats violence. The other usual suspects, happy to have Hollywood in their corner for once, have been celebrating the record-breaking opening weekend take of $90 million and six Oscar nominations.
The savagery of the Iraqis is mostly taken for granted to have happened off-screen—we see what looks like a captured soldier, clearly tortured, hanging from the ceiling—except for a cartoonishly sadistic villain who tortures a child to death with a power drill. Understand, the terrorists do worse than waterboarding.
Some reactions to “American Sniper” have cut across expected political loyalties. Jane Fonda, for example, seemed to sympathize with the movie’s portrayal of PTSD sufferers. And to be sure, the impacts of war on the warriors are not something the movie shies away from—another late scene shows Kyle taking disabled veterans shooting, which, if you know what happened to him, is somewhat tense. More interestingly, Bradley Cooper was listed as one of Politico’s “50 Politicos to Watch” in 2013. He’s appeared at a Center for American Progress event and seems to be quite close with the vice president. This is the star of a movie whose detractors our vigilant right-wing press has been keeping a running tally on. How about that?
But the same incuriosity about causes and alternatives its critics condemn is what saves this film from a heavy-handed pro- or anti-war message. Alyssa Rosenberg at the Washington Post wrote that the movie is an object lesson in how the “fear of being seen as political can deaden a story.”
There is an inevitability to Chris Kyle. It’s similar to other Clint Eastwood characters who are motivated by revenge, and on whom violence ends up taking a personal toll. “The woman was already dead,” Kyle writes of the encounter depicted in the first scene. “I was just making sure she didn’t take any Marines with her.” We were already in Iraq, I was just making sure we won.
This makes for good, heroic—and unifying, if we can take box office numbers as proof of that—filmmaking. “American Sniper” is the first War on Terror film I can think of with a larger-than-life hero at the center of it. It’s much more fun to watch than, say, “Lone Survivor” or “The Hurt Locker.” The climactic fight takes place as a massive sandstorm rolls in; Kyle takes an impossibly long shot, killing his nemesis, a fellow sniper with Olympic shooting credentials, then his squad has to fight off baddies until the timed relief arrives. He calls his wife from the roof of the besieged building, in one of the movie’s less believable moments, to tell her he’s ready to go home. Kyle leaves his rifle in the dirt as he tries to catch a speeding MRAP, bringing a line at the beginning where his father tells him not to leave his rifle in the dirt full-circle.
A timer, a villain, family-related moments of realization for the hero—in case you haven’t noticed, these are superhero boss battle tropes.
Dramatizations and strategic editing are par for the course in filmmaking; it’s hard to blame Eastwood or screenwriter Jason Hall for these things. They chose to “print the legend,” or The Legend, as many writers have put it.
Judgment calls were clearly necessary, because Chris Kyle himself was guilty of spinning some tall tales about how he employed his skills back home. He claimed to have picked off looters during Hurricane Katrina, as reported by the New Yorker, and to have shot two men in Texas who tried to carjack him. Neither of these stories has ever been substantiated. More definitively, a court found that a scene in the book where he punches out a man named “Scruff Face”—who he claimed later in an interview was Jesse Ventura, didn’t happen and constituted defamation.
It’s easy to understand why a person would lie about having killed someone. It’s harder to understand why someone would claim to have killed more people than they actually did.
To give Kyle the benefit of the doubt, the first two tales read like gung-ho one-upmanship taken too far, but the Ventura story is more complicated. Using a nickname in the book, only then to name the guy he claims to have punched in a televised interview suggests an ill-considered PR move to goose book sales.
At the very least, Kyle’s fibs paint a less humble and more media-savvy picture than the one shown in the movie. Do they make him any less of a hero? Probably not. Should we fault “American Sniper” for not dealing with them? Perhaps, but the movie’s boosters would probably say that would have “politicized” it.
Unfortunately, humans are political animals, and that’s inevitable:
“[American Sniper] may inadvertently be the best argument most Americans will see for the premise of the Iraq war, because it has one small scene where a guy prepping Chris Kyle for his first mission points out … you’re facing basically the A list of the jihadists. … You go, ‘oh my gosh,’ this is fantastic, we’re sending the best of the best Americans to wipe out these bad guys who would, a la Paris today, be somewhere else … I remember watching the movie thinking, ‘if only the Bush administration had made this case as well as Clint Eastwood just made it on the movie screen.’” —Michael Graham, Weekly Standard podcast, January 19, 2015 [emphasis added]
Graham’s substantive point is complete horse-pucky. The years-long insurgency is proof that ordinary Iraqis were a lot more resistant to occupation than we expected them to be. Moreover, nobody who uses “American Sniper” to regurgitate decade-old Bush administration talking points should be allowed to complain about people who “politicize” stuff.
To Graham’s editor Bill Kristol, Kyle’s widow is useful only as a prop to beat the administration over the head with. Maybe he thinks more reverent movies about Navy SEALs will give us the gumption to finally put “an end to evil.” But thrusting Taya Kyle onto the national stage to score cheap political points is small consolation for a dead husband, lost to the aftershocks of a war he never stopped defending.
Whether or not you see this endless cowboys-and-Indians game as fated—Kaplan calls it “thankless”—there’s a certain self-fulfilling logic to it. To quote Kaplan from 2004:
Indian Country has been expanding in recent years because of the security vacuum created by the collapse of traditional dictatorships and the emergence of new democracies—whose short-term institutional weaknesses provide whole new oxygen systems for terrorists.
This is exactly the process American foreign policy has been speeding along, in both the Bush and Obama administrations. Then stories come along to help make the things we do comprehensible, and in that sense “American Sniper” is a successful movie. The Crockett Almanacs helped us conquer the frontier, never mind that Davy Crockett didn’t do most of that stuff. Little Bighorn convinced us Indians were savages. It’s pretty clear what role “American Sniper” is playing for some.
J. Arthur Bloom is opinion editor at the Daily Caller and managing editor at Front Porch Republic.