American Sniper: American Masterpiece
Gilbert Chesterson once remarked, “I’ve searched all the parks in all the cities and found no statues of committees,” implying that humanity’s greatest accomplishments seldom arise from collaboration, but are the product of singular, enlightened minds. In light of this quote, it’s a wonder that any film relying on the effort of hundreds of individuals could prove itself a masterpiece. Yet each year, two or three films are blessed with just the right constellation of talent, producing an experience so compelling one couldn’t help but call it a masterpiece.
American Sniper is such a film. Directed by Clint Eastwood and featuring a precise, emotionally gripping performance by Bradley Cooper, this true story about Chris Kyle, the most deadly sniper in American military history, works on every level. Stunning cinematography and tactically accurate battles offer up all the excitement and suspense expected in a war film, yet its true power derives from examining the full spectrum of Chris’s experience as a warrior—how the all-consuming experience of combat can put “lighting in your bones” yet just as easily eviscerate the soul. It also shows how he must choose between being present for his family or his brothers in arms, and the nearly impossible task of coming off the extreme highs of combat and re-assimilating into the emotional flat-line of civilian life.
The film’s portrait of Chris Kyle begins early in his childhood. After beating up a bully for hurting his younger brother Jeff, Chris’s father congratulates him for “finishing it” and tells him that there are three kinds of people in the world: sheep, sheepdogs, and wolves. Sheep allow themselves to be victims, sheepdogs protect the weak, and wolves prey on the weak. It’s clear from an early age that Chris sees himself as a sheepdog, ready to use violence to fend off the wolves. But what’s not so clear to Chris is that, even though a sheepdog appears to have noble motives, he’s being raised to be an animal, one who acts off of the base instinct of violence. Subtly, Chris’s upbringing makes the audience wonder, when does the sheepdog become a wolf? Where does the line fall between protecting the weak and becoming a monster? How long can he live by the sword?
Even though Chris never asks these questions of himself, they develop into the underlying themes of the film. In his book What It Is Like to Go to War, Vietnam veteran Karl Marlantes says, “Once we recognize our shadow’s existence we must resist the enticing step of going with its flow.” Throughout the film, we see Chris becoming sucked deeper and deeper into the vortex of war, volunteering for multiple tours of duty despite the objections of his wife, who can tell he’s being enticed to follow his shadow into total darkness. On top of deep and rich themes, this picture excels in balancing action and story. Many high-budget films rely heavily on CGI action; hoping excitement can make up for a weak story. Recently I watched Captain America: Winter Soldier and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. In both movies I was appalled to see twenty minutes of story followed by two hours of chase sequences and combat. Thankfully, the makers of American Sniper understand that action can quickly lead to emotional fatigue, causing the audience to quit caring about what happens to the characters.
Instead of relying on action, American Sniper focuses on Chris Kyle’s personal journey. The screenwriter Jason Hall, who also wrote Paranoia and Spread, recognizes that the audience connects to a film’s hero only after discovering the hero’s strong desires, for strong desires are universal and highly sympathetic. We see Chris’s desire to protect his younger brother as a child, and we like him. We see Chris working hard to become a cowboy, and we admire his dedication. We see his intense desire to defend his country, and we’re touched by his willingness to sacrifice on our behalf. We see him pursue a beautiful woman until marriage, and we’re charmed. And before long we have so connected with Chris’s desires that we can feel his anguish at having to choose again and again between staying with his family or returning to Iraq to hunt down the sniper—a Syrian Olympic medalist in sharpshooting—who has killed his comrades. Once ensuring we understand and empathize with Chris, the filmmakers put him and his buddies into a few gritty, frighteningly realistic engagements and an incredible climactic battle near the end, but never let those action sequences detract from the real story.
Another area in which American Sniper adds to its richness is through exploring the politics of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Politically, Chris observes the war in stark white and jet black. When asked by fellow frogman Marc Lee if their presence in Iraq is a waste of time and lives, Chris blows off his friend’s concerns by saying things like, “There’s evil here. We’ve seen it. Would you want these f***ers in San Diego or New York?” Yet Marc and other characters in the film have a better appreciation for the complexities and vagaries inherent in the business of war, adding just enough counterpoint to Chris’s hyper patriotism to prevent the film from feeling like a raw-raw pro-war cheerleader.
What really surprised and pleased me about this film was its portrayal of post-traumatic stress disorder. So many films focus on the heroic, cinematic battles of war, yet neglect to convey how, for many of the veterans, the battle rages for years after the bullets have stopped flying. In his book On Killing, Dave Grossman says, “Some psychiatric casualties have always been associated with war, but it was only in the twentieth century that our physical and logistical capability to sustain combat outstripped our psychological capacity to endure it.” Each time Chris returns from a tour of duty, the audience can see how modern war ravages the minds of those who fight. Each time his PTSD has grown worse, and its effects on his family prove the true costs of war even for those who are fortunate enough to have “survived.”
For all these reasons and many more, American Sniper is an important, must-see film. By the end you’ll be thoroughly entertained, emotionally depleted, and will have likely gained significant insight into the lives of our most highly trained warriors.