Pretty lies sell. Politicians know it. Hollywood knows it. Clint Eastwood knows it – although perhaps he did not intend to sell pretty lies when he made American Sniper. But pretty lies are what Eastwood delivers. And in them rest the sources of the controversy, and the complications, of the movie.
As you likely know, American Sniper tells the story of Chris Kyle, an American SEAL who is famous for being the “deadliest sniper in American history” with 160 confirmed kills to his name. The movie is far more interested in telling the story of the impact Kyle’s four tours of duty in Iraq had on him and his family, however. Much of that story is not pretty and much of it is true.
There Is Much Ugly Truth in American Sniper
There are quite a number of ugly truths wrapped around the pretty lies of American Sniper, which do a good job of giving the pretty lies of the film the appearance of “truth by association”.
Eastwood does not make war look fun. He makes it look like a tough, exhausting, dangerous job — Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post nails it when she called American Sniper a “professional procedural”. (The single exception is the scene where Kyle kills a rival sniper with a headshot from nearly a mile away. We follow the bullet in slow motion as if we were watching The Matrix.)
Eastwood certainly doesn’t make war look pretty. In one scene, one of Kyle’s friends is hit by assault rifle fire that instantly deadens his expression. He dies seconds later. In another scene, one of his friends is shot in the face, and we watch as the man chokes on the blood gurgling in his throat. Kyle’s sniper rifle blows holes the diameter of coffee cans in the bodies of the men, and the woman and the child, he kills.
Eastwood shows us the impact of war on soldiers. We are there outside the operating room when they die. We attend their funerals and see the grief of the family they left behind. We see soldiers trying to recuperate from horrible wounds in hospitals back home, and then try to build a new life with broken bodies and broken spirits.
We see what the war does especially to Chris Kyle’s wife, Taya, played by an excellent Sienna Miller. One of the strengths of American Sniper is just how much attention and respect it pays to the suffering of the wives (all wives in this case) of soldiers at war. And we see the impact of the war on Chris Kyle himself through the outstanding performance of Bradley Cooper – richly deserving his best-actor nomination – who in scene after scene, quietly and almost motionlessly, conveys the anguish of Chris Kyle’s job.
After Kyle shoots an armed enemy, he exhales and drops his head. Then he sniffs and returns to looking through the sight of his rifle, as if each shot were a burden he would need to carry and for which he would need to ultimately answer. This is particularly true after the famous opening sequence, when Kyle has to decide to shoot a young boy who is running toward an American patrol with a grenade, and then shoot the boy’s mother who picks up the grenade after her son is killed.
Later in the film, another boy picks up a grenade launch dropped by a dead fighter and seems to be attempting to aim it at an American patrol. “Put it down, put it down, put it down,” Kyle whispers as he fixes the boy in the sight of his rifle, a look of horror spread across his face. His relief when the boy drops the weapon is palpable.
Balanced against these many ugly truths – and they are very ugly indeed – are the pretty lies of American Sniper. These lies are very pretty indeed. The ultimately overwhelm the counter truths. And these lies start with Chris Kyle.
Chris Kyle: An Ideal and Idealized American Soldier
By all reports, the real Chris Kyle was in many ways the man American Sniper shows him to be. A tough professional elite soldier who joined the military to defend the United States from terrorists. A loyal and unwavering friend. A loving and devoted husband who struggled against the damage the war did to himself and his family, and who then committed himself to helping other veterans with the same struggles – including the man who killed Kyle in 2013.
But there are other parts of Chris Kyle that are absent from American Sniper and which are less than ideal. For example, the movie portrays Kyle as modest and reluctant to discuss his work. The real life Chris Kyle seems to have been much less modest. He actively promoted himself as “America’s most lethal sniper” and made good money doing it.
Kyle’s bragging also extended to things he didn’t do. Kyle claimed to have killed two carjackers in Texas and gone to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to shoot looters. No evidence for these claims exists. Kyle also claimed to have punched Jesse Ventura for criticizing the Iraq War. Ventura won a $1.8 million libel judgment against Kyle.
You could say that these were a few moments when Kyle’s mouth got ahead of his brain. You can’t offer the same defense of some of the opinions Kyle published in his autobiography. Such as these:
“I’m not lying or exaggerating to say it was fun. I had the time of my life being a SEAL.” [From the introduction.]
“I missed the excitement and the thrill. I loved killing bad guys.” [On why he wanted to go back to Iraq.]
“It was like a scene from ‘Dumb and Dumber’. The bullet went through the first guy and into the second…Two guys with one shot. The taxpayer got good bang for his buck on that one.” [On firing at two insurgents on a moped.]
These are not the words of a modest and selfless soldier, doing the hard work most people are unable or unwilling to do; not the words of the Chris Kyle portrayed in American Sniper who is celebrated by much of the nation as hero. These are the words of a person who enjoyed being paid by the U.S. government to go on a murder junket. And there is nothing pretty about them.
What Exactly Does “Fighting for Freedom” Mean?
As amazing as it sounds, the prettied up Chris Kyle isn’t the prettiest – or biggest lie – Eastwood tells in American Sniper. That distinction goes to the justification the movie presents for the Iraq war. Or more precisely, the lack of justification for the Iraq War the film presents.
War is a brutal business and when a war is necessary (and I do believe some wars are necessary) then we need men like Chris Kyle to fight them; and if these men are less than perfect in their motivations, and less than perfect in their actions, it is nonetheless indecent to criticize them for their imperfections. Men like Chris Kyle are the means to the ends we pursue, and if we don’t like the means then we shouldn’t pursue the ends.
The problem is that American Sniper utterly ignores questions like these. Instead, it takes at face value, unexamined and unchallenged, Chris Kyle’s justification for the Iraq War, which is the pretty, glittering, noble-sounding phrase that he was “fighting for freedom”.
But what does “fighting for freedom” mean in the context of the Iraq War? Don’t look for the answers in American Sniper because they ain’t there. Which leaves us to guess.
One possibility is that “fighting for freedom” means protecting the United States from existential threats – that is from enemies that have the ability to destroy America and the freedoms it guarantees its citizens. In this case, there are two important questions: Was Iraq an existential threat? and if so Was invading Iraq the best response to this threat?
The answers to both questions have been definitely settled as “no” for everyone not living inside an intellectually dishonest fantasy land. (They were also clear to many before the war began.) The same answer holds true for the claims that we were fighting for Iraq’s freedom, and that all that was need to create a stable democracy in a peaceful Iraq was to get rid of Saddam Hussein. History – if you wanted to bother looking at it – would have told you otherwise.
In this context, perhaps “fighting for freedom” means we don’t want to admit we launched a war of choice out of a combination of fear, incompetence, stupidity, vanity, bravado, and magical thinking. Or perhaps “fighting for freedom” means that it would be too painful to admit the Iraq War was a mistake after all the sacrifices made by our soldiers and their families.
Or perhaps “fighting for freedom” means that we really just want to kick somebody’s ass; we aren’t too particular about whose we kick; and we need some high-minded sounding excuse to go do it.
This is an offensive suggestion. The problem is … of all the possible definitions, it makes the most sense. If you were really serious about protecting America, you would believe it is worthwhile to carefully assess threats and deliberately choose the best response, weighing risk against benefit. And examine and learn from mistakes. Yes? If you were really serious about spreading freedom, you’d look at the places where it was done successfully, and the many places it wasn’t, then get serious about exactly what it will take and how hard it will be.
If on the other hand, you’re a fan of the shit-kicking approach to foreign policy – Let’s go kill bad guys! – and you see military intervention as simply a whole lot more awesome version of the National Football League – then “fighting for freedom” full stop, end of discussion, is all you need.
American Sniper: Catnip for Red States
Eastwood has claimed in his public statements that American Sniper is a “character study” and that the film is “anti-war”. Neither one of these claims holds up to scrutiny.
In terms of Chris Kyle, not only are the ugly pieces of his character left unstudied in American Sniper, they are substantially prettied up. This idealized Chris Kyle, with all the storytelling and myth-making fire-power of an accomplished director behind him, is made by the movie into “the” portrait of “the real” American soldier. Too tough, too brave, too accomplished, too loyal, too tender, too strong, too steady, too vulnerable, too modest, too selfless – just flawed enough to be too heroic – to be true.
It’s hard to be anti-war if you make the impact of a war ugly (which Eastwood does) but make the reasons for fighting that war noble when they ain’t. Or put it this way. When horrible sacrifices are justified by beautiful lies, the lies don’t become horrible. The sacrifices become beautiful.
Considering the total effect of American Sniper then, the pretty lies are stronger than the ugly truths, and leave the stronger impression. No surprise then either that the film has the knickers of liberals in a twist or that American Sniper is a smash-hit success in Red State America. It’s perfect catnip. It acknowledges the horror of combat and the heavy sacrifices of military families, while telling us soldiers are heroes who volunteered to fight a good and necessary war. Based on all the reports of cheering during the movie, sounds like the shit-kickers got their money’s worth too.