By now you’ve surely read a half-dozen or more reviews of “American Sniper,” and probably even read the book. So you know what it’s about. You know who stars in it and who made it and who loved it and who famously hated it.
I don’t want to rehash the same old points (though I’m going to reference a couple). But I do want to look at what stood out to me as a couple of the most impactful elements of the movie.
Let me preface by saying that I don’t know and never met Chris Kyle or Taya Kyle. Never had any interactions with them ever. So I’m not speaking from any position of first-hand knowledge. Also, I haven’t read the book. And I know a dozen people are itching to comment with, Oh, the book is SO much better! Yeah, here’s the thing: that’s always the case. Like, 99.999999999% of the time. I don’t think that sentence or anything like it should appear in movie critiques. It’s stating the obvious, and a movie should stand or fall on its own ability to tell a story, not how it compares to the literary version of the story.
I’m also going to reference a few other posts about the movie. Apparently it needs to be said that I don’t necessarily endorse anything beyond the quoted portions of those posts. So, okay.
So, to start off, the movie was definitely what I’d call “rough.” You see people killed. You hear a child tortured. It’s loud. It’s violent. It’s filled with f-bombs. You will not be comfortable for more than maybe 5 minutes in this movie. That’s not a criticism.
I’ve seen complaints here and there that there wasn’t enough nuance to the bad guys in the movie. That the man who killed kicking and screaming children by literally drilling a power drill through their heads was “dehumanized.” Because it’s possible to dehumanize someone like that, I guess.
As Ben Howe put it:
These folks like to hear the “other side of the story.” You know the one, where you find out that Mahmoud had a rough childhood. Or that his mother was killed by a drone. The other part of the story. Where someone is poor, or deprived, or abused. They point at this and they say “see? They are just people too. Just like you and me.” Their mistake is thinking we don’t know that. We know that. But we know something else, too. A truth about life, the universe and everything. They say “just because someone is your enemy doesn’t mean you can’t understand them.” But that is backward. The truth of the universe is: “just because you understand someone, doesn’t mean they aren’t your enemy.”
To quote Denny Burk:
And maybe more than anything, it portrays how wicked Al Qaeda in Iraq really was. Somehow that fact seems to have been lost on many Americans ten years ago when popular support for the war waned. But there really was a “Butcher of Baghdad,” and he really did kill children with a power drill. And there really were torture chambers where unspeakable atrocities occurred. In other words, there really is good and evil in the world, and that fact comes out clearly in the movie.
This, to me, was one of the movie’s best narrative strengths. There seems to be this mindset out there that Iraq was this slightly-less-developed, probably flawed, but basically peaceful place that only went to hell because Americans crossed the border. (Or maybe I’m feeling the hangover of being in college for the beginning years of OIF and hearing “war criminals” pontificated on endless loop.)
If anything, I would complain that instead the scope of the horror in Iraq was too narrow. It’s not talked about much, but Saddam Hussein was a monster. And he raised junior monsters. The likes of which have the bones of construction workers in the foundations of their palaces like Egyptian Pharaohs; anyone whose work began to lag behind was shot on-site. Uday and Qusay were infamous for putting people they didn’t like into giant human-sized meat grinders – alive, conscious, feet first – as entertainment. Stop right now and visualize that. I dare you.
And of course, the Kurdish genocide using chemical weapons of mass destruction.
But, the war at large isn’t really present in the film. And that’s fine. It’s not really about “the Iraq war.” It’s about a single person in that war, and partly using him as a placeholder for many servicemembers in general.
Critics have also made much of how jingoistic, simplistic Chris Kyle’s attitude is toward combat. Pretty sure those critics have never spent much time around combat arms servicemembers. They tend to get pretty simplistic about their attitudes towards combat and good and evil. It’s not out of ignorance or apathy. It’s because there’s a job to do, and handwringing gets you killed. It’s also because they see the evil themselves, face-to-face. And they don’t really care whether or not some college professors or JD holders in Congress think it’s “justified” – they want to fight evil. Every time ISIS beheads another American the resounding cry is “Let us go!” even if that means being sneered at as the “world’s police,” whatever the crap that means.
From another angle, something else “American Sniper” did really well was show the evolving dynamic of a military family enduring multiple combat deployments. Watching the movie, I was concerned that Taya Kyle would come across to the average viewer, well, poorly. To someone who’s not done a deployment, I was worried, they would judge her as unsupportive, noncommittal, weak. She’s frequently asking, “How much longer do we have to do this?” And at one point even says that if he goes back to Iraq, she “might not be here” when he returns. (That doesn’t seem to be the case, based on most of the reactions I’ve seen online – or maybe I just follow people who are above such thinking.)
Of course, to a spouse who’s gone through a deployment, you see those scenes and, at least for me, I can fill in the “in-betweens” that the movie doesn’t have time to show. When you eat a little too much pizza and spend a little too much money because it’s been a little too long since you’ve heard from him. (The vast majority of us don’t have direct, personal lines with 24/hr access to our servicemembers, btw.) When you start counting the hours off in your head since the last time he emailed you, and ask your friends when the last time THEY got an email was, to compare. When two dozen of you sit in a living room and cry together because you just found out that one of you is burying her husband next week.
I can’t think of a single friend of mine who would say that her role as a spouse would be equal to our soldiers’ mission in theater. Many of us don’t think we have “the hardest job in the Army.”
But at the same time, some of us have panic attacks every time UPS knocks on the door. Some of us stop sleeping except for a few hours in the middle of the night – the “safe time” when they won’t make death notification visits. Some of us have to help children adjust to functioning like normal without constantly worrying about Daddy.
It takes a toll. It doesn’t necessarily lead to divorce or alcoholism or depression. Sometimes it does. We all have weak times. We have strong times, too. Sometimes, instead, it leads to community service, to completing educational or career goals, to improving personal health. To growing faith.
Anyway, I know this isn’t a very good “movie review,” but there are plenty good ones out there. These were my takeaways from watching. And yes, cinematically, the acting is on point, the direction is basically flawless, the emotional ebb-and-flow is exactly as it should be. It was too intense for me to watch again any time soon, honestly. But I will.