What America’s most popular war movie says about our nation’s continued alienation from the front lines. Warning: Spoiler ahead.
I love war movies: not for the explosions or the patriotism, but because they gave me a window into the world that structured the days of my onetime boyfriend and best friend Luke, who left our small town in Idaho at 18 to attend military school, enlist in the Army, become a Ranger, and, in 2003, leave for the North Korean DMZ and Iraq.
In the beginning, I consumed whatever Luke approved as a true approximation of military life. Blackhawk Down, especially the book, was one of his favorites, and I devoured it, sending him AIM messages with each chapter, asking questions about acronyms, and begging him never to get “Blackhawk Down-ed.” I wanted to know everything about what his life in combat might look like — the way that soldiers spoke to each other, how their beds were arranged, how dirty their faces got in the sand, the patterns of sweat on their backs, the look of their walks, and straightness of their posture. I wanted to feel something of that reality, but I was terrified of how that reality might play out.
That’s what draws so many of us to military movies: the fetishization of what the military does to men (turns them into honorable, beautifully built brothers of man) and the terror of what happens to those men once placed in battle.
It’s certainly what drew me and so many others to American Sniper, which is shattering all records for a January release, bringing in an estimated $105 million over the long weekend. The success of Sniper comes as a surprise in part because for much of the last 10 years, you couldn’t tell a story about contemporary U.S. conflicts that brought audiences to the theater. Stop Loss, In the Valley of Elah, Rendition, Lions for Lambs, Redacted, The Messenger, Green Zone, and Brothers were all disappointments; even Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker famously grossed just $17 million domestically.
When the war is happening — when the coffins draped in flags are coming home every week — the horror of men in battle is too great. No one wants to pay $10 to be faced with the ongoing and uncomfortable reality of an ambiguous war still without resolution.
But after the battle is ostensibly done — not won, per se, but, at least in American eyes, over — that’s when Hollywood’s mythology machine kicks in. The success of Zero Dark Thirty ($95 million domestic) was a testament to audiences’ willingness to see a movie that narrativized the most disturbing parts of the war (torture) and pointed to their end result (the capture of Osama bin Laden). A similar phenomenon happened with Vietnam: the canonical movies (Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Hamburger Hill) we associate with that conflict all arrived several years after its end.
It’s difficult, after all, to tell a good story when you don’t know how it ends. But the brilliance of so many of those failed war films is that very inability to conclude, the particular purgatory and perdition of these wars without end. It hurt to watch them; to leave the theater blinking in dismay, wondering how to get that deep feeling of unsolvable sorrow out of your heart.
Most Americans avoided these films because they didn’t want to feel that intimately connected to these unsettling and unwinnable wars. As many have pointed out, the make-up of the contemporary armed forces (which, absent conscription, draw heavily on lower-income populations) has facilitated an alienation from the realities of war: Since so few know anyone in the war, it’s remarkably easy to remain financially, emotionally, psychologically unaffected. A movie like The Hurt Locker or the stunning documentary Restrepo bridge that gap, rendering the vast psychological wreckage in a manner that simply cannot be ignored.
Some believe that American Sniper is serving a similar function. The film humanizes its protagonist, Chris Kyle, and in so doing, ostensibly humanizes the war. By watching Kyle, as a child, an aimless adult, and a principled Navy SEAL trainee, we’re encouraged to think of him not as a soldier, but a man: a father, a husband, a person of worth. Because the screenplay is based on Kyle’s own autobiography, we’re also invited to take its depiction at face value: This isn’t some screenwriter’s rendering of the war, but the way it really was. The visceral shots of Kyle during SEALs training (close-ups on his face as superiors spray him with a firehose, shivering in the mud strapped to his fellow trainees) invite the audience to empathize with his growth, as both a man and soldier. When he lies on his stomach, sighting his rifle, POV shots make his gaze our own. In the theater where I saw it, the Dolby Atmos sound made me feel the rumble of the tanks vibrating through my entire body; every time Kyle made a shot, I felt the kickback in my spine.
Kyle is as winning and American as they come: unwavering in his commitment to both America and his men, he’s a throwback to the type of soldier we associate with the cleaner wars of the past, when ideas of “good” and “bad” were so comfortingly legible. Unlike the soldiers from other films dealing with recent wars, he doesn’t listen to rap music, stash porn, or play video games; he drinks three beers at a bar and calls it good, and despite a lower lip that looks permanently filled with tobacco, we never see him dip. The closest he comes to manifesting something like PTSD is bum-rushing a dog he fears is attacking his son; that anger and psychological trauma is quickly resolved when his psychiatrist gets him talking to other veterans at the VA hospital.
Because it’s impossible to wrap up the film, as so many World War II dramas do, with an American victory, the contemporary war film has to create another winnable conflict. In American Sniper, that conflict manifests between Kyle and his sniper nemesis, a doppelganger about whom we know nothing other than 1) he won a gold medal for Syria in the Olympics; 2) he, too, has a young daughter; and 3) he likes spinning a single bullet around on the table like a Bond villain (with no lines of dialogue) while staring into nothingness, waiting for informants to call him with Kyle’s current location. His life’s work seems to be hunting one man in a war of hundreds of thousands, which effectively makes Kyle seem all the more important, skilled, and valuable in our eyes.
When Kyle at last vanquishes his nemesis, it offers the sort of unquestionable victory that so many of these wartime films, with the pointed exception of Zero Dark Thirty, simply cannot conjure. That’s why the coda of the film — in which Kyle is gunned down by a troubled veteran he took to go shooting — goes unseen and unexplored. To see Kyle dead and gasping on the ground, the victim of a broken system that fails to care for its vets, would undercut the message of personal (and, by extension, national) triumph the film aims to convey.
Some might counter that this sort of neat narrative is what actually happened to Chris Kyle. And while I have no doubt that Kyle was the sort of man who inspired tremendous loyalty amongst men, or that his skill as a sniper was unrivaled, it’s crucial to remember that all of us are constantly narrativizing our lives. Working with co-authors Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice, he turned his memories into a story with a beginning and an end, a genesis and a payoff. That story was tightened as it made its way from Kyle’s mouth onto the page, and tightened further still as it made its way from a 480-page book into a 133-minute movie.
As James Fallows argued in his recent tour de force on the “tragedy of the American military,” the rhetoric of “supporting our troops,” and the resultant imperative not to criticize the failings of the military on a systemic level, is, in truth, a cop-out: a way of not actually taking the military seriously. I’d argue that American Sniper, for all of its patriotism, is the filmic extension of that rhetoric: By buying the ticket, by fostering a feeling of intimacy with Kyle, you’ve expressed your devotion to a certain ideal of the American military and the values of honor, brotherhood, and self-sacrifice, but one which, after leaving the theater, you can once again ignore.
In Eastwood’s hands, that ideal is evacuated of politics: There’s no messy discussion of what got us into the war, or what’s preventing us from winning it, just a story of a man and his individual triumph. Which, of course, is part of the reason American Sniper is dominating the box office: Absent commentary on the war, it can attract viewers of all political persuasions. The narrative makes it virtually impossible to question Kyle or the war he’s fighting; in the one scene in which one of his kills is questioned, Kyle simply yells his defense, effectively ending the scene and any interrogation thereof.
Watching American Sniper in the theater is an immersive, ultimately cathartic experience — but it shouldn’t be. Every war movie should make you feel like shit. Indeed, every war movie I’ve seen over the last decade, with the exception of Zero Dark Thirty and American Sniper, has made me feel like shit, in part because the man for whom I began watching those films was killed in Fallujah in 2004.
I sought out those broken, ambiguous war movies that failed to fill theaters because they manifested the ambiguity and sorrow I felt about Luke’s death. I watched them because in making me feel something deeply, something that troubled me and sat thick in my stomach, they also kept the loss of Luke alive. It’s not that I wanted to wallow in sadness; it’s that they allowed me to continue to grieve him, while simultaneously giving voice to the ways in which an honorable man can fall victim to a cause that might ultimately not be.
I didn’t cry during American Sniper. I felt anxiety and fear, the way that narrative wanted me to, and elation when Kyle made his way into that truck and, ultimately, home. I felt desire for the build of Bradley Cooper, the thickness of it, the way he tucked his polo shirt into his pants, and the sullied baseball cap, because it reminded me of how Luke was built and dressed the same. But Sniper was, at end, a superhero movie. Any frustration I might have felt after the coda was immediately dissipated by a hard cut to actual footage of Kyle’s Cowboy Stadium memorial, set to a melodramatic score, flags billowing mighty and high.
That’s an excellent way to tidy the story of messy war. And while American Sniper shows due glory to its protagonist, I fear it’s ultimately a disservice: not to the thousands of soldiers who gave their lives, but to any future actual and accountable connection between the people who fight these wars and those who watch movies about them.