By Jon Comulada
In the opening moments of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, we see an American tank and a squadron of about 20 soldiers moving slowly and calculatingly through the grey and dusty Middle East. On a nearby rooftop is Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), a Navy sniper, watching over the moving squadron like a hawk-eyed lifeguard. Through his scope, Kyle sees a woman and a small boy come out of a building. The boy is handed what appears to be a Russian made grenade and starts running towards the soldiers. Only Kyle has eyes on him. His finger moves slowly towards the trigger of his rifle, and he is faced with a choice. The film cuts away and we don’t get to see the result of his choice. Not yet, at least.
This scene was also used as the film’s first theatrical trailer. It worked. American Sniper has grossed over $200 Million in the US and Canada alone, and continues to dominate the American box office. It also continues to be a controversial conversation piece, with everyone from Michael Moore to Seth Rogen chiming in to criticize the film’s messages. Messages that, they argue, glorify both war in general, and our particular recent aggression as a nation in Iraq and Afghanistan.
When I saw this movie I didn’t see a film glorifying war, but I also didn’t see a film not glorifying war. I saw a film that was chaotic, tense, bleak and, at times, nonsensical and hypocritical. A general tone that, I can only imagine, is a little bit like war itself.
It must be tough to make a war film. Not just technically, but emotionally of course. Unless you want your film to take a new and bolder stance, you have to walk a fine line between not glorifying violence and not undermining the bravery of the troops. You should show how war can tear apart a family at home, but be careful not to make anyone in that family too selfish. It’s hard to make art of any kind these days because people are quicker to take offense. However, American Sniper is not a new kind of film.
Though advertised like a biopic, American Sniper is a war film. We get a little bit of Kyle’s backstory, and every once in a while we check in state-side with his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), but for the most part we’re with our sniper in the thick of things. We’re learning about various insurgencies, troop movements and strategies. We’re getting to know the bad guys and seeing how the Marines and SEALs work together to find them. This is where the film’s heart is: long sequences of desert gunfights with no underscores, people shouting commands into walkie talkies and getting shot in the head.
This film calls the chaos of war—the madness of war—its home. Interestingly enough, that’s also what Chris Kyle wants to call home. And that’s our conflict. He wants to be at war more than he wants to be with his family. In fact, his family isn’t even his family anymore. The people with whom he serves and protects are the people he truly cares about. This may be selfish and hubristic, but it makes for a hell of a character. A character so good we’ve met him before.
In 2008, Jeremy Renner gave a breakout performance in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker as William James, an Army bomb-squad Sergeant who, after spending what the critics called a “ferociously suspenseful” two hours defusing bombs in Iraq, is forced to return home and go grocery shopping with his wife. It’s a task almost laughably mundane in contrast—you can see in his eyes he’d rather be back in the thick of war. The Hurt Locker won the Oscar for Best Picture and is regarded as a modern masterpiece. It wasn’t my favorite movie, mostly because when I first watched it I was pretty sure I had seen another film do the same thing but better.
2005’s Jarhead stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a Marine sniper in Kuwait. It’s a beautiful artistic character piece cleverly disguised as a war film. The main conflict of Jarhead is that this particular group of Marines, who were promised bloody warfare, don’t get any. Some don’t even get to fire their weapon. Yet, when they all return home their lives are forever changed. Nothing could ever come close to the feeling of being out there serving your country. And perhaps no other film has better summarized what it feels like to be a veteran than Jarhead, thanks entirely to its last line of dialogue: “We are still in the desert.”
All of these films show characters at war doing something brave and extraordinary. Whatever your political slant, and whatever military action you support or protest, the soldiers who actually go out and fight are doing something that the rest of us just don’t understand. Films like these help us get a glimpse at what it might be like. Not just the chaos and the violence, but the return to the mundane, and the guilt for the very perception of mundanity. Imagine how torturous it must be to hold your newborn son for the first time and realize that it doesn’t feel like it did when you held your first AK-47. You may feel broken, you may feel depressed and numb. You may feel like you need to go back.
None of these films glorify war because war, when shown honestly, is impossible to glorify. War is ugly and bleak. American Sniper is ugly and bleak. Its central character is someone who is proud of his service and, as he states in a much-referenced scene, is prepared to “meet his creator and answer for every shot he took.” Including, by the way, the shot that kills a child when we return to the opening scene.
However, all of these films show a character who, while tormented by things he had to do during battle, can’t help but feel that it was the greatest thing they’d ever done. So great that they all either go back to war, or come to the understanding that they’ve never left.
Some controversy continues to surround the real Chris Kyle, who may or may not have been an asshole, and who may or may not have deserved to have a film made about him. I say that if the story is interesting it deserves to be told. American Sniper tells the story quietly and carefully. There is no patriotic music, no montage of American flags, and no political message. It’s simply the story of a soldier who had to go out and fight. It isn’t pro-war, but it isn’t anti-war either. Yes, it’s hard to separate the film itself from the curmudgeonly Republican we all know directed it, but if you do you find an honest and well-told story.
American Sniper is not an easy film to watch and it shouldn’t be. War isn’t easy. It’s also not an easy film to make up your mind about. It doesn’t do any one thing particularly well or send any one message particularly clearly. But that’s life, and that’s war. It’s all complicated and conflicting. The people who go through it know something that the rest of us don’t. It’s important to remember that we can pretend to be by their side for two hours while we eat popcorn, but then we get to go home.
They’re still in the desert.