The Rude Pundit pushed aside as many preconceived notions as he could when he watched American Sniper, the Clint Eastwood-directed, Oscar-nominated film about Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL who chalked up the most kills of any sniper in the military during the Iraq war. As you may know, the film has become a political battlefield between some on the left who see it as glorifying the Iraq engagement and those on the right who see it as a celebration of the innate good of the American soldier.
And even while viewing it, the Rude Pundit thought the film had been treated unfairly by many of its critics. Sure, it offers few sympathetic Iraqis, but no one faulted Saving Private Ryan for not spending time with the nice Germans. As for the racist remarks by Bradley Cooper's Kyle and the other soldiers, well, sorry, if you want polite talk about the ostensible enemy, you probably shouldn't watch a war film. Also, Eastwood and writer Jason Hall weren't really under an obligation to hew closely to Kyle's story. It ain't a documentary.
So, really, truly, the Rude Pundit is coming at this from as open-minded a position as possible. (Does he have to list all his family members who are or were in the military?) And he thinks this:
American Sniper is a film about stupid people who were brainwashed into doing something stupid and it justifies their stupidity so that the stupid people watching can feel good about themselves. See, the one thing you can't separate out from the film is history. It tries to elide over history, but just because it isn't mentioned doesn't mean it isn't there. Because of that, the overwhelming feeling the Rude Pundit had was pity, not pride.
After a set-up where Kyle is about to shoot a child in Iraq, we get what can best be described as a psycho killer origin story. Kyle learns to hunt at an early age, something his father tells him he's good at. The father fills his sons with nonsense about their place in the pecking order of the universe. This hypermasculine bullshit plays out, as it does in Texas, with Kyle becoming a rodeo rider who joins the Navy to become a SEAL after he sees the U.S. embassy attacks in 1998. That leads to his brainwashing during his training (apparently, SEALs have to constantly be wet). In short order, he meets a woman, Taya, the World Trade Center attack happens, he gets married, and then he's sent to Iraq. We get no sense that the invasion of Iraq happened 18 months after 9/11. Then, boom, we're in Iraq and the tedious pattern of the film is set: shooting people in Iraq, coming home to weepy, concerned wife, rinse, repeat for four tours.
Ultimately, the film fails not because it doesn't present the Iraqis in a more complex way, but because it banks on our credulity. It treats us like we're fucking idiots who are willing to forget anything about the truth behind the invasion of Iraq. It counts on our fucking idiocy in order to convey its simplistic message that American soldiers are awesome and everyone else needs to shut the fuck up.
So we get scenes of Americans going house to house to find insurgents. They break down doors and rush in, grabbing anyone they can. When one Iraqi man protests that they are in his house, Kyle says, "I don't give a fuck it's your house." Then they berate and threaten the man until he gives up the name of a specific enemy torturer, "the Butcher." (Seriously, names in this film are dunderheaded. One soldier is, swear to Christ, "Biggles," like a fuckin' cat.) That family, the only "good" Iraqis we see, ends up having the father and a son brutally murdered. In another scene, the soldiers barge into an apartment and, more or less, take a family hostage so they can use the apartment for surveillance on some "Hajis." Of course, it turns out the father is hiding weapons. Of course, he ends up dead.
Through it all, all the people he shoots (and, truly, Bradley Cooper seems like he's acting in a different, much deeper film), all the scenes of him watching fellows soldiers get killed and wounded, all the psychological damage he does to his poor wife when he calls her during firefights, Kyle maintains a pathetic belief in the good of his mission and in the protection of his "brothers." It has an effect on him - he suffers from PTSD - but the film wants us to believe that it was necessary. So, in the end, American Sniper is the story of a dumb man who wrecked himself for a worthless cause and about all the young men (and it is all, mostly white, men in it) who were sacrificed for nothing.
It's not the film that tells us it's nothing. We know it was for nothing. We know that one of the great crimes of the new century is the invasion of Iraq for absolutely no rational, demonstrable reason. We know that all those "savages," as Kyle calls the Iraqis, that we killed were for nothing. We know that all those Americans who died lost their lives for nothing. Our military was protecting us from nothing. Our freedoms weren't at risk from Iraq.
And the lie many soldiers from Iraq cling to and the lie we tell ourselves, and the lie that so many have worked so hard to maintain, is that as long as we don't discuss that it was for nothing, as long as we pretend that the fact that soldiers fought when they were told to fight and, mostly, did so nobly, we don't have to face the truly gut-wrenching reality of our national complicity in the crime.
American Sniper exists, then, to play to that lie, to silence anyone who would point it out. Shit, once Kyle goes to war, the movie is so devoid of any rationale for being in Iraq that no one mentions Saddam Hussein or weapons of mass destruction. Even George W. Bush isn't mentioned. The film fails, too, because all it's really saying is that, if you put some soldiers somewhere and tell them to do something, they will defend each other and do the job. The fact that the leaders of their country betrayed them in the most elemental way possible never enters the equation. So all we're left with is killing Iraqis because Iraqis are trying to kill us, fuck if we care whose house it is.
At some points, the Rude Pundit wondered if Eastwood was trying to frame it this way, but, when the credits roll, after Kyle's murder at the hands of a disturbed vet, we are treated to scenes of the motorcade heading to his funeral, the streets lined with people with signs and American flags. No, then. We're supposed to feel proud that men like Kyle defend us. We should instead feel intensely angry that they died in vain.