No matter where you stand on the war in Iraq debate, American Sniper is a film worth watching. I was torn when the film was released. Did we need another war film? Did we need a film before we were out of Iraq telling us whether the war was good or bad?
So I waited for the film to come out on DVD and Blu-ray, which happened this week, just in time for Memorial Day weekend.
I was surprised at how good the film was. I know, I know, it was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor in a Leading Role (Bradley Cooper). (It only won Best Achievement in Sound Editing). American Sniper is not an analytical film about war, instead war is the reality of the narrative. It is the story of a father, a husband, and a service man, Chris Kyle (Cooper).
The film is based on Kyle’s autobiography, and under the direction of Clint Eastwood, becomes an excellent film about the real war for our troops. It shows the drama of a solider returning home from war uninjured, yet wounded, elevating the cost of war. And whether it intends to or not, it advocates for better care of our military service men and women.
In a somewhat fire-and-brimstone manner, Chris’ father teaches him and his younger brother that it is important to be strong, brave, and protective. The scary speech drills into the boys that “We protect our own.” The weight of this expectation grounds them vocationally, making it difficult for them to discover their purpose.
They seek to live the life of cowboys in the rodeo, when their television shows attacks in Tanzania and Kenya on U. S. embassies in the late 1990’s. It is enough for Chris to make up his mind and join the Special Forces, where he will develop a new sense of purpose. While training he meets Taya (Sienna Miller) who will become his wife.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Kyle is deployed to Iraq as a sharp shooter. He is the best, with a confirmed 160 kills and known as the deadliest operative in U. S. Navy history. As the film depicts, there was a bounty placed on Kyle, the identifying marker his cross tattoo.
Each time Kyle comes home, he is wounded emotionally. He has seen things that he cannot unsee. The weight of expectation to protect has been replaced with the weight of death. From those he killed to his own comrades who have died around him, it becomes too heavy and Kyle breaks. The breaking point is when Kyle is about to beat a dog he fears is attacking his son, with his belt. Taya stops him and he responds to that moment by getting help. Because he is such a legend, he uses his role in life to help other veterans.
In the final scene Taya closes the door, ever so slowly. Most films about war (not all) face the challenge of ending the story well. Eastwood makes use of his skill of using images to symbolize a greater meaning to end the story well. Here as the door is closing it is representing the end of Kyle’s life, killed by the veteran he set out to help that day. He does not show how Kyle dies, nor does he need to. The effect on the audience has been achieved with the simple closing of the door.
The film humanizes Chris Kyle and it humanizes war, something that does (and should) make us uncomfortable. It is free of politics and commentary on the state of a war. The narrative does not need those additions. It is sufficient on its own as a story about a man and his individual victory. If anything, the film begs us to reconsider how we respond to military service persons returning from battle and their families.
The wounds run much deeper than the visible scars.