January 27, 2015

Despite its divisiveness, American Sniper deserves a fair viewing

The biggest January release in history is also one of the most controversial in recent memory. American Sniper, directed by Clint Eastwood, pulled in over $90.2 million when it opened across the country two weekends ago and dropped just 28% in its second weekend. At the same time, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee released a report noting that the film’s wild success and portrayal of Arabs in the Iraq war was leading to increased hate speech and anti-Arab sentiment.

It’s fair to wonder why a movie that had earned mixed pre-release reviews and significant criticism for its alleged glorification of the Iraq war was able to gather six Oscar nominations when the more critically acclaimed Selma only garnered two. I certainly shared that concern before I went to see American Sniper myself. But those concerns very quickly disappeared upon exiting the theater with the certainty that I had seen a diligently crafted and extremely humanizing film.

American Sniper is based off the memoir of sniper Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), who is credited with the most confirmed kills in US military history, and its portrayal of his story has earned a reputation as a sort of mirror to any individual member of its audience. Those who defend the Iraq war will have their beliefs confirmed through Kyle’s undying commitment to defending his country and fellow soldiers, and his commitment to the moral philosophy passed down by his father—that one should serve as a “sheepdog” against the wolves of the world.

Those critical of the war, like myself, are supposedly destined to view it the same way and to despise it on those grounds, or to interpret it as a largely sardonic criticism of Kyle’s commitment to his naive sheepdog philosophy and the military, in which he ignores the larger questions of the war’s purpose and its larger effect.

I had expected to come away feeling one way or the other, but I believe both anti-war responses miss the mark, neither giving enough credit to the most challenging moral questions the film poses. Snipers have a unique position in armed conflict; they not only see, but watch, every target they kill. As we see through Kyle’s story, they fulfill a paradoxical role of being the furthest away from any target they do kill, but also in a way the closest, as they watch and follow their target for the last minutes and seconds of their lives. The psychological toll of that latter form of proximity is rendered beautifully and tragically in Bradley Cooper’s performance.

Kyle is unquestionably a racist, more so in his memoir than in the film, commonly referring to the Iraqis as “savages.” But, due to his role in the army (closely focused on specific targets) he’s actually the least likely to risk collateral damage of unarmed Arabs. Several scenes in the movie have Kyle holding his trigger until he can confirm a person is an imminent threat. In fact, the people he kills in the film are themselves attempting to kill someone else, usually a US soldier. In these instances he can either shoot or hold his shot, but someone, Iraqi or American, will be killed in the next few seconds. That may not have been the situation of all snipers or of every shot taken by the real Chris Kyle, but it is the situation the film repeatedly puts its Chris Kyle.

The tragedy of American Sniper lies in this conundrum: Kyle must kill and kill and kill to save lives, and though the moral tradeoff might even out—taking a life to save a life—the moral rationalizations can’t protect his humanity from being torn at the seam. “I need you to be human again,” his wife asks after he returns home. The dogmatic, nationalistic rationalizations, which were more present when Kyle decides to enlist, also fall to the wayside once Kyle actually gets to Iraq. Though Sniper’s critics make Kyle out to be a fantastical (and problematic) hero of American jingoism, by the end of the film Kyle makes little mention of the national implications of the war, only of protecting the other soldiers who were threatened by his targets.

By presenting us with this specific moral question, Eastwood demands we examine the effect of killing on the human psyche, like a modern Crime and Punishment. This is killing in its most unaffected form, where the sequence of events that led to the situation are put out of mind, where there is no punishment or obvious reward for the killer (though the film’s Kyle becomes known as “The Legend,” it’s obvious that Kyle himself resents that accolade), and the consequence is a net even—a life is taken to save a life.

A cynic will watch Cooper’s performance towards the end of the film, as Kyle becomes emotionally erratic and ultimately zombie-like speaking only in mantras and half-hearted jokes, and claim that the mere act of killing is an assault on one’s own humanity—who one is as a person is altered completely by the first shot one takes. Cooper’s face as he gazes through his scope at his first ever kill, a child, will affirm this view. An optimist will look to the film’s ending, of Kyle helping other veterans and living happily with his family and claim that killing in this context can take its toll but ultimately one can recover through altruism and support, as Kyle does.

It’s a credit to the filmmakers and Cooper that, despite my own passionate anti-war stance, I, an Arab, wanted Kyle, an anti-Arab racist who has 160 confirmed kills of Arabs and voluntarily served three extra tours, to be able to recover after it all, though ultimately I believe he could only pretend to. The key exchange of the film, which I will remember for a long time, comes at the climax of the film. Kyle has just shot an impossible target, a legendary Arab sniper who had allegedly killed some of his own friends, from over a mile away. Several people in the theater cheered and applauded. Kyle takes a deep breath and the soldier nearest him says, with a beaming smile, “Mission accomplished.” Kyle simply stares, and a sandstorm overwhelms both him and the body of his target. That line seems to affect Kyle like an electric jolt, it likely jolted many people in the audience this weekend, as it did me.

As a country, we often evaluate the Iraq War on the particulars—the consequences it had on our country, the consequences for our soldiers, and the consequences for those in Iraq—and many of us have, on that basis decided to take a stand against it. We believe the mission wasn’t worth the cost. But American Sniper hands us the gun that was handed to Kyle and asks us to look down its scope. Following a utilitarian sensibility, I would have taken most of the shots the film’s Kyle took and probably more, and I wouldn’t have waited as long as he did to shoot in many of those cases. Kyle is a paradox: the most efficient killer in a bad war might still be the most moral person on the battlefield; but he is also the tragic center of warfare, where sand and ruin overwhelm all moral distinction and bury the sheep with the wolves.