The American Sniper movie was creating controversy before it even hit theaters with people seemingly taking sides over whether its main character is an “American hero” or a psychopath. People have very strong views on the matter, something which led at least one movie critic to receive death threats for a negative review. Celebrities like Seth Rogen and Michael Moore have stepped in to the debate with their own negative opinions. Sarah Palin is one outspokenly positive viewer of the movie, along with plenty of conservative fans who have helped drive up the movies profit margin. Everyone seems to be arguing over this as if it is an objective concept, an either-or, a “This town ain’t big enough for the two of us” clash. Fundamentally, however, the argument over American Sniper is about what kind of hero you want to see, which is hardly an objective thing.
The Daily Beast has published an article calling the movie a “political rorschach” test, which is essentially what it is. Eastwood, the film’s director, has himself said that it was not meant to be either a pro-war or anti-war film. It does manage to stay very middle of the road as far as the political story behind its main character’s time in the battlefield. But people are not viewing it from a neutral point of view. Every moviegoer brings with them a bias which they then project onto the film. That is why Seth Rogen can see it as akin to Nazi propaganda and Jane Fonda can call it “powerful.” Ultimately, people’s opinions on the film say more about themselves than the movie.
Essentially, American Sniper is a character study of a soldier who is supposedly detached from killing as a sniper, but really is not. Bradley Cooper does an excellent job of portraying the inner life of Chris Kyle with the merest eye twitch or reluctant finger movement towards the trigger. Should he win a Best Actor award for his performance, it would be well-deserved. Most people would probably agree that the character in the film is a sympathetic and admirable man. What people are really disagreeing about, however, is whether American Sniper’s Chris Kyle and the real Chris Kyle are the same person.
By all accounts, Chris Kyle the real person had some not so admirable characteristics. In his autobiography he displayed a relish for killing that goes far beyond what any normal person should have. He is at times extremely racist and regularly dehumanizes his enemy as “savages” or just as pure evil. The nuanced performance of Cooper might be too nuanced if the records of Kyle in real life are considered. According to Kyle himself, his only regret about his time in Iraq was that he did not kill more people. That does not line up with the character study that Cooper and Eastwood have provided in American Sniper.
That is one contention with the film that people have that is often lost in the endless back and forth between apparent “patriots” and apparent “Hollywood leftists” mostly because they are both intent on arguing in broad strokes. Once again, an argument with no real resolution, with layers and layers of complexity, has been boiled down to a black or white fight on Twitter. It simply is not that simple. The question of what kind of hero people should have never is.
So what kinds of hero are at stake? The “conservative hero” is a “sheepdog,” something that Kyle’s father is reported to have said. Sheepdogs are “those who have been blessed with the gift of aggression, and the overpowering need to protect the flock.” Surely that kind of person is an admirable one and that is what the Kyle of the American Sniper movie certainly seems to be. But the real Kyle looks more like a rabid dog than a trusted protector.
The “liberal hero” is something else, but no one is quite sure what. At this stage, the answer seems to be “someone who is not like Chris Kyle.” It is not someone who likes the killing, who denigrates his enemy with racial slurs, someone whose hate makes him wish he had killed more people who could be women or children. Apparently, the “liberal hero” is someone very like the Chris Kyle of the film, though not the man himself.
Again, this is a debate that will never be resolved because people cannot agree on who is the real Chris Kyle, the one in American Sniper the movie or the book. In on of the worst cases of conflating a real person with their movie portrayal, people are putting their own views of the man on an essentially fictional character. And there is no arbiter in this argument. Kyle himself is tragically dead at a relatively young age, leaving behind a wife and child and a legacy fraught with questions and contradictions which he can no longer address. Eastwood’s movie is also no mediator in the fight between partisans. The director and principal actor of the film have done their best to extricate themselves from the argument. “Character study” is a coded phrase for “I don’t want to take sides.”
But the real question about American Sniper remains: What kind of hero do you want? People’s conclusions about the movie will inevitably say more about what they want the answer to be than the answer itself. Take for instance Andrew O-Hehir’s piece on Salon about the film. In it he concludes with his own opinion that despite the supposed neutrality, American Sniper is a “sardonic commentary.” Here is how he sees Kyle in the film: “This is a portrait of an American who thought he knew what he stood for and what his country stood for and never believed he needed to ask questions about that. He drove himself to kill and kill and kill based on that misguided ideological certainty – that brainwashing, though I’m sure Clint Eastwood would never use that word – and then paid the price for it.” It is neither liberal nor conservative, not black or white, neither lionizing nor demonizing the man American Sniper so eloquently portrays – and it might be as close to the truth as anyone is ever going to get.
Opinion by Lydia Bradbury