Critics Miss Big Picture on ‘American Sniper’

Never mind the praise: Criticism of “Sniper” has been withering. Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore went on Twitter and called snipers “cowards” (though he later denied his tweets were a direct reference to “American Sniper”).

Comic actor Seth Rogen seemed to compare the movie to Nazi propaganda. Lindy West, writing for The Guardian, called Kyle a “racist who took pleasure in dehumanizing and killing brown people …”.

The movie, critics say, has been commandeered by some as an uncritical salute to a guy who became a hero by killing upwards of 160 men, women and children.

But I think both the movie’s most ardent fans and vocal critics got the movie all wrong. Sure, Eastwood is giving us a hero in “American Sniper”—just not the one we think we’re getting.

American Sniper - Official Trailer [HD]

Eastwood knows a thing or two about the topic. As an actor, he came to embody a certain heroism—a long, lean, dispenser of frontier justice. But as a director, Eastwood has shown more skepticism toward traditional heroic journeys. He deconstructed what it means to be a hero in his Oscar-winning directorial turn in 1992′s “Unforgiven.”

In 2008′s “Gran Torino,” he gave us the opposite of Dirty Harry—a hero who performed his greatest heroic act by not fighting back. Yes, Eastwood gave us patriotic war heroes from the battle of Iwo Jima in the 2006 film “Flags of Our Fathers,” but not blindly so. And the following year, he unpacked the same battle from the perspective of the Japanese in “Letters From Iwo Jima.”

So to suggest that “American Sniper” is a slavish, superficial biopic might not be giving its director enough credit.

Chris Kyle (played by a fantastic Bradley Cooper) probably wouldn’t call himself a hero. Rather, he might characterize himself like his father did—as a sheepdog, protecting the sheep from the world’s wolves.

Punch the Clock

He serves four tours of duty in Iraq, and for him the conflict is not a reason to wring his hands or mull the inherent brutality of war. It’s a job. No, more than that: A calling. He was meant to serve his country in this manner. He was made to protect his brothers in uniform. And Kyle serves his calling with the same laser-like focus that made him such a lethal marksman. He does not question. He does not doubt. He serves.

“Do you ever think that you might have seen things, or done some things over there that you wish you hadn’t?” a Navy doctor asks him.

“Oh, that’s not me, no.” Chris responds.

“What’s not you?”

“I was just protecting my guys,” Chris says. “I’m willing to meet my Creator and answer for every shot that I took. The thing that haunts me are all the guys that I couldn’t save.”

Kyle doesn’t struggle because of what he did, but rather what he didn’t—or, now that he’s back home for good, won’t. He thinks that some people will die because he’s not around to protect them. People call Chris Kyle a hero because he’s so good at his job. And, to the soldiers and SEALs he protects, he is.

But Eastwood doesn’t leave it at that. Even as he saves lives in Iraq, he takes them, too—necessary, Chris believes, but sad nevertheless. Meanwhile, his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), and children suffer at home without him. And when he comes home, Chris isn’t the man he was or should be. He’s distant and distracted. Sometimes inexplicably angry.

Back home he struggles to relate to his wife and young kids (an issue a lot of returning vets have). He can’t quite turn off his wartime self at home.

“If you think that this war isn’t changing you, you’re wrong,” Taya tells him. “You can only circle the flames so long.”

Heroism on the Home Front

To me, it seems Chris’ real act of heroism was to leave Iraq and return home for good—to reclaim his wife and family, to be the husband and father they needed and deserved. It wasn’t easy to become that man again, to set aside his legend for a more domestic legacy.

It’s relatively easy to be a war hero when you’re built for war. But to be a hero in your own house? Now, that’s hard. It requires a different sort of heroism and courage and tenacity—something that doesn’t win you any medals or get you any book deals. But it’s what Chris had to do.

Yes, Eastwood acknowledges Chris Kyle as a war hero, which I think he was. But the Chris Kyle we meet in “American Sniper” is more than that. He’s a complex, conflicted man, full of his own strengths and weaknesses.

And if Eastwood celebrates this multifaceted man, it’s as a husband and father—a man who put down his gun to pick up his son.

One Comment

  1. This is a beautiful review, Christian.

    We saw the film last night and then came home and read some articles about the movie.

    The review in Rolling Stone made me sick to my stomach. The reviewer completely missed the point of the entire film which makes me question his intelligence, and I’m not just saying that because he and I are a million miles apart when it comes to politics. I really couldn’t believe what he wrote! But I digress…

    Reading this review is refreshing. I think you captured here what a lot of other reviewers did not. What made Chris Kyle a true hero (beyond the battle field) was his ability to come home and be a father and husband to this children.

    While I enjoyed The Hurt Locker more than American Sniper, this film deserves all the accolades and Oscar nominations it has gotten. It’s a solid piece of film making and despite what those on the far left have written or tweeted, I thought it was a rather well-balanced film when it came to politics.

    One thing I’d like to point out that I noticed, but the left wing movie reviewers failed to notice was that the insurgent sniper was shown to have a family – a newborn baby and we see the photo of his Olympic gold medal ceremony on the wall. While the movie didn’t delve into his background, it did give him humanity. He was not simply the “face of evil.” He could have been painted with that brush, but Eastwood chose to give him humanity. I think that says a lot, although apparently people like Seth and Michael chose to ignore that entirely.

    Lastly, Seth Rogan is a a-hole. This was the last straw for me. A month after all these people support his STUPID, RIDICULOUS film in the name of free speech he compares American Sniper to Nazi snipers? Go away Seth Rogan. You are a hypocritical dick.

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