American Sniper is a Hollywood war movie. And it’s more than a little like a Hollywood Western.
It is set largely in the post 9/11 war in Iraq. Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL, is the greatest combat marksman in American military history. He’s a legend. Over four tours in Iraq, in the rubble from street level to rooftop in blasted landscapes of places like Fallujah, he’s up against “Mustafa,” an Olympic medalist as a marksman, the greatest combat marksman among the Iraqi insurgents. Mustafa is also a legend.
Kyle’s role? To cover the backs of his fellow soldiers by picking off lurking suicide bombers and other enemy combatants unseen by them. The battle scenes and their pace are superbly rendered, a confirmation of director Clint Eastwood’s large talent for movie making.
Kyle’s book about his experiences is the lore of American Sniper. The screenwriter is Jason Hall. He may be the only person who knows how close “biopic” is to biopic. For example, I’m sure there wasn’t an actual Mustafa in Iraq. But as the two classic opponents move unerringly toward a Showdown, they call to mind, respectively, Alan Ladd or Charlton Heston versus Jack Palance or Lee Van Cleef.
It takes nearly the entire movie for the two to face off. Separation-in-tension…that’s essential in Hollywood. But eventually lovers, PIs and the murderers they look for, and rival gunfighters have to have a Come-to-Resolution Meeting (known in graduate school as a Come-to-Denouement Meeting). In old-time Romances, for example, obviously the hero and heroine eventually have to be left alone. (Otherwise, ticket sales will dwindle and determined censors will be out of work). Like Roger Thornhill and Eve Kendall finally are in North by Northwest. In the last seconds. Together on the train. That enters the tunnel.
Kyle and Mustafa won’t meet face-to-face in a lost saloon far out in the Tetons. In fact, strictly speaking, they won’t meet. But they will intersect (a good term for a sniper story). One will scope the other. It will be across rooftops over a distance of 2,000-plus yards.
You know who wins.
American Sniper has been and will be a focus of the debate about Iraq. That is, it is being taken seriously in not a few places as a suitable vehicle for that argument. Here is what Kyle’s father tells him at the dinner table one evening in Kyle’s boyhood:
“There are three types of people in this world: sheep, wolves and sheepdogs. Some people prefer to believe evil doesn’t exist in the world. And if it ever darkened their doorstep they wouldn’t know how to protect themselves. Those are the sheep. And then you got predators. They use violence to prey on people. They’re the wolves. Then there are those blessed with the gift of aggression and an overpowering need to protect the flock. They are a rare breed who live to confront the wolf. They are the sheepdog. We’re not raising any sheep in this family.”
Kyle is, of course, a sheepdog. His wife, Taya Renae, is a sheep, as are several Iraqis we meet who are caught up in the fighting. Among the wolves are al-Zarqawi, whom Kyle eventually is assigned to take out (though he never has the chance), and his deputy, “the Butcher” (I’m guessing not an actual person in Iraq), a merciless killer Kyle does eliminate. The psychopathic savagery of the wolves is insistently displayed, in part as a counterpoint to the mission-driven hard realities of the American conduct of the war.
In short, American Sniper is basically a mythic movie, a better-than-usual one, you would expect from a classicist out of the Hollywood tradition.
Yet American Sniper hardly ducks the reality of what we now call post-traumatic shock disorder–Sienna Miller is dazzling as Kyle’s wife and the lead voice in the movie not only for raising the theme of soldiers’ battle shock disorders but also for raising the question, Why are we in Iraq? (Eastwood lets Kyle’s father’s dinner-table explanation suffice for this latter question: hence there is no point in trying to think about the Iraq War strategically in any sense by invoking American Sniper. Not anymore than trying to think about the American Indian Wars by reference to She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.) But if Eastwood’s dramatization of the trauma of war is unflinching, you sense it is one that holds out much hope of a natural recovery in the warrior’s years of life back home, a recovery not so much through formal therapy as through a healing brought by good years of postwar family and community life.
The dark side of his outlook here–intended to be so or not–is that years after Kyle has Come Home successfully and happily, he is killed by a disturbed veteran Kyle was seeking to help by friendly interaction. That sudden, shocking irony marks the conclusion of Eastwood’s mythic movie, and you ponder that it is both a factually true obligation of the storytelling and that it leaves American Sniper not quite resolved.