Sunday, January 25, 2015

Not Now Honey, I'm Sniping: My Take on Clint Eastwood's New Film

I am surprised to report that I was disappointed in American Sniper. I thought it was going to be a glorified look at how the U.S. is using every tool in its toolbox to stop Islamic extremism. Instead, I was treated to a version of Chris Kyle's life that celebrates his ability to multi-task regarding his over-watch responsibilities with his wife's need for attention.

While I would have been okay with an Navy SEALs in Iraq version of Top Shot, I found myself bored that Clint Eastwood gave us a remarkably clumsy romance, nearly constant marital discord, complaints about Chris Kyle's emotional unavailability. Instead of the informative, heroic story I was looking for, I witnessed Chris Kyle obsessively calling his wife back home in the U.S. (I find it annoying when my wife calls me at work.) I was not expecting to see a film about how war interferes with domestic tranquility.

For all these reasons, I was not surprised to learn from a recent story in PJ Media that Taya Kyle played a large role in the film according to lead actor, Bradley Cooper.
When filming, Cooper said he was focused on being accurate toward Kyle’s character, so his personal thoughts about America’s War on Terror did not come into play. “The honor, it’s right there, I’m standing next to Taya Kyle and any time you get to play an individual who has really lived, or is alive, that’s a privilege but especially when it’s this man, Chris, and the fact that we were going to do it while he was alive and then I continued once he died and she really was the reason why it became the film that it became, you know, that’s the honor,” Cooper said at the Washington screening of American Sniper, which was directed by Clint Eastwood.
I have a hard time understanding why this movie broke so many box office records given its decidedly misguided approach . It was fun, of course, to see a little about Navy SEAL training. I was reminded of those moments in my own life when, in the company of other men, you needed to know that a man is straight before you mercilessly joked about him being a fag. By end of the movie, however, the only parts that really got my attention where the examples of Islamic cruelty in the form of a woman pressing her child into grenade throwing, an evil enforcer who uses a drill on a child, and a sudden invasion of a restaurant/torture chamber. The parts of the movie that caught my attention were not consistent with either Kyle's book or the truth.

Concerns about how the Qur'an encourages child soldiers, the murder of innocents and the use of cruel torture techniques had little resonance with Mr. Cooper:
PJ Media asked Cooper if working on the film changed his perspective of the War on Terror.
“Never even thought about it. It was all about being accurate toward that character [Chris Kyle] and what he went through and that’s always been the intent … to create and reflect the human that I got to know and that she [Taya Kyle] knew as her husband,” Cooper said.

Following tradition, Kyle's fellow warriors pounded 
more than 100 Navy SEAL trident pins into his casket.
I thought this movie was popular because it was a creative take on how the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history managed to accumulate 160 confirmed kills out of 255 probable kills by blowing off the heads of those who wish us ill. After all, American Sniper is based on Chris Kyle's autobiography American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History. This movie, however, seems do everything its power to distract from content advertised in the book's title. For me, the best part of the film was watching the work of Kevin “Dauber” Lacz, a former Navy SEAL who served two combat deployments to Iraq. In a couple of scenes, Lacz is shown calmly and quickly picking off the bad guys in a manner that I believe was reminiscent of the real Chris Kyle. Lacz was brought into the film as the SEAL technical adviser and was persuaded by the star, Bradley Cooper, to play a role in the film.

The movie had so many liberal micro-aggressions in it I am starting to wonder why liberals pan the film as an ideological affront. One of the bad guys - an expert insurgent sniper, "Mustafa" - is portrayed as a person who is at least as courageous as Chris Kyle. Mustafa is a former Olympian who works alone and jumps from rooftop to rooftop like a fully armed deer. Eastwood wants to remind us that our enemies have virtues too. Later, angry Iraqis swarm Chris Kyle's unit in a not so subtle attempt to let us know the U.S. is not entirely popular among the people it is trying to protect. The moral of the film seems to be that if you are going to survive as a sniper you need to repress your intellectual curiosity about your cause and listen to your wife about when it is time to quit.

All in all, I have to agree with the critics who see this movie as a troubled look at war, instead of a patriotic celebration of how the U.S. delivers justice overseas. I am with David Denby of The New Yorker who described the film as "Both a devastating war movie and a devastating antiwar movie, a subdued celebration of a warrior's skill and a sorrowful lament over his alienation and misery."

Among conservatives, we are apparently so hungry for a positive portrayal of American soldiers that Eastwood's Hollywood version of Chris Kyle's book is met with praise from Sarah Palin. I still do not get it. I would have liked to have learned more about what made Chris Kyle and Kevin Lacz effective snipers. I would have been okay with being exposed to some of the boredom of sniper life. I am disappointed with a portrayal of this American hero which seeks to remember him mainly as a triumphant family man.

John C. Drew, Ph.D. is an award-winning political scientist.


  1. I get the impression that you never served in the military.

    For those of us that have (especially in a "combat arms" job, as mine was), the movie's portrayal of the shaky balance between "work" and home rang true. Spouses play a key role in the effectiveness of a warrior. Worries about domestic situations can lead to a lack of focus and effectiveness in battle. Lack of focus can become instantly terminal.

    So, although not perfect, the movie "American Sniper" helped the average movie viewer to get a glimpse into the warrior life. I think that was the goal of Chris Kyle writing an autobiography. Thus, the movie did -- at least, in large measure -- fulfill Chris' goal.

    Now, let's consider some specific points in your review.

    - It seems to me that the movie did a good job of showing "every tool in its toolbox". Although not a detailed look (which is classified...), the movie did a decent job of showing the integration of modern technology with old-fashioned warrior grit. It also did a good job of showing how the gears grind with respect to the role that real-time "diplomacy" plays on the modern battlefield. Eric Close's portrayal of DIA Agent Sneed, although brief, was quite believable. (Most citizens do not even know what the DIA is. And, my guess is that I've been around more spooks than you have.)

    I don't think that the intent of the movie was to show SEAL *training*. If you want to know what makes a good sniper, the opening few minutes of the movie encapsulate it quite well. (I was not a sniper. But, a designated marksman worked for me on the team that I led in Korea; And, my score on the range would've gotten me into Marine Corps sniper school, even though I was in the Air Force.) The main story is about how a sniper is employed. And, I feel that the movie did a fine job. More importantly, Chris Kyle's fellow SEALs seem please with the movie.

    I did not see the movie portraying Mustafa's "virtues". I did see his skills and motivations portrayed. He was a determined adversary. When I was in Korea, I had a jumpmaster that was prior Special Forces. One day, while chatting, he told me, "Just remember that a million dollars worth of training can still be stopped with a fifty-cent bullet." The movie showed just how close Chris Kyle came to being stopped by a fifty-cent bullet, and how his level of training, determination, and motivation (including his belief in the rightness of his cause) gave him the edge over the guy with the home-turf advantage.

    The movie even touched, momentarily, upon the boredom aspect of being a sniper. Everybody needs to pee sometime. But, when a sniper needs to pee, then the people he is assigned to protect lose the benefit of his overwatch. It might only be for a minute, but a lot can happen in a minute. (For example, that's 10,000 feet of freefall.)

    If one is looking for a patriotic "celebration", then go to a parade. But, for a fairly realistic look at the up-close-and-personal dimensions of modern American combat, I don't think a movie viewer can do much better than "American Sniper". (The movie "Act of Valor" -- also about SEALs, and also starring some -- is also very good. Did you know that it started off as a training film for SEALs??)

    Although it might seem that my comments are harsh, they are not intended so. I have enjoyed your other writings, and have enjoyed our Twitter exchanges. Our differing perspectives on the movie likely stem from our differing career backgrounds.

  2. I always appreciate you perspective and comments. I'll see if I can order "Act of Valor" through Netflix.

  3. We watched Act of Valor tonight and I was very impressed. I only found out afterwards that the SEALs in the movie were real SEAL team members using real live ammunition. I think I will have to watch it once again more closely. Apparently, one of the big differences between the SEALs in real life and the SEALs in this movie is that in real life the attack on that torture chamber house would have been completed in about five seconds. As far as I can tell, real SEALs are faster and quicker than movie SEALs.