Casualty of war: Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) traveling with the dead in a symbolic moment from Clint Eastwood’s decidedly not pro-war war movie about the most lethal marksman in U.S. military history, American Sniper.
Chris Kyle’s first kill in American Sniper isn’t presented as a moment of heroism or of battlefield courage or even as a demonstration of superior skill. He and the Marines under his watchful protection aren’t under fire. He’s in no immediate personal danger. The target isn’t an enemy soldier and isn’t aware he’s a target. He’s walking down the middle of an open street, offering Kyle a clearer and easier shot than the deer we saw him kill early in the movie when he was around this target’s age, ten or twelve.
The target is a young boy.
He’s a dangerous boy. He’s carrying a grenade he intends to throw at the Marines.
He can’t see well enough to be sure that what the boy’s carrying is a grenade. He isn’t sure that even if it is the boy intends to throw it at the Marines. Kyle has to make a decision. One of those horrific damned if you do, dead if you don’t decisions war forces on the soldiers who fight it.
Kyle decides to take the shot.
It’s the “right” decision.
To his psyche.
It’s the first of the psychological wounds he’s going to suffer in the course of the movie.
He suffers the next one with his very next shot.
Also the “right” decision.
Kyle feels justified but he’s shaken. He doesn’t get his wounds treated, however. He denies they’re there. When he sets up to take his next shot he’s all business. Same with the next one. And the next one. And the next. In a quick montage we see Kyle make kill after kill. One right after another. We don’t see the circumstances of each shot. We only get glimpses of what he’s shooting at. None of these killings is presented as heroic. None of them appears to come in the nick of time. None of them appears to give him any satisfaction either as a soldier doing the job that needs to be done to defeat the enemy or as a skilled marksmen taking pride in a job well done. They’re just the job. Don’t hear that---“the job”---the way it sounds when it’s said by self-righteous characters on TV shows or even by real soldiers and marines forced into saying it by dumb questions from fatuous journalists. Hear it as simply the routine task at hand.
And with each kill we see Kyle become more and more used to the routine. He even begins to seem bored the way even people doing jobs they love and enjoy and take pride in can get bored with the routine. He becomes more detached, more unfeeling, to the point that he’s finally feeling nothing except physical relief when a shot’s taken. He has to hold a position for so long waiting for a clear shot that his muscles cramp up. After the final shot in the sequence, Bradley Cooper as Kyle simply relaxes his shoulders and rolls his neck to unkink it. It’s one of those small, perfect gestures that tell us everything all at once about a character and alert us to the actor’s brilliance, like the way Tommy Lee Jones sets his feet flat together on the floor as his character sits ramrod straight on a bench in the hall of the coroner’s office waiting to go in to identify his murdered son’s body in In the Valley of Elah or the way Sandra Bullock’s eyes widen just a fraction of a fraction of an inch when her character hears that the homeless young man her family’s taken in has never had a bed of his own to sleep in before in The Blind Side.
The roll of the neck is Cooper’s moment of brilliance. It tells us this is Chris Kyle’s moment of crisis.
Or rather it’s the moment when we should realize that Kyle is in crisis and American Sniper is going to be a movie about that crisis.
This isn’t the story of a war hero. It’s the story of a casualty of war.
From the discussions online, I take it that a lot of people who’ve seen the movie didn’t catch that moment or didn’t grasp its significance.
Let’s get this out of the way.
Clint Eastwood has directed a good war movie, taut, gripping, suspenseful, harrowing at times. But good war movies aren’t about battles and firefights and blood, guts, guts, and glory. They’re about men and women at war. They’re about people trying to remain human in the most inhuman conditions human beings devise. American Sniper focuses on one man and one woman at war: legendary Navy SEAL Chris Kyle---legendary for being the most lethal marksman in American military history---and his wife Taya (played by Sienna Miller) who, even though she never sets foot in Iraq, is forced to go to war along with him because combat zones are infinitely expandable and extend to include the families of the troops on the line no matter how far away from the fighting they are physically. Whatever wounds Kyle suffers, she and their children suffer. Taya and the kids are casualties of the war in Iraq too.
So American Sniper a war movie.
It is not a pro-war movie.
It’s not a particularly political movie.
The little politics Eastwood lets slip in are isolationist.
The only connection made between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq is chronological. The attacks happen and nineteen months later the war happens and Chris Kyle finds himself in Iraq. In between, he gets married. Eastwood makes no use of it for emotional effect, never mind using it to make a political point. It’s exposition. We don’t even see it happen. We see Kyle see it happen on TV.
Right Wingers who love American Sniper seem to think the movie vindicates and retroactively wins George W. Bush’s War in Iraq. Liberals who hate it seem to think Clint Eastwood remade The Green Berets.
Neither group seems to have seen the movie.
I’m sure they watched it. The Right Wingers, at any rate. Five or six times, many of them. The liberals talk more about what they’ve read about the movie than about the movie itself, so I don’t know their story. But I’m convinced that those people who did watch it didn’t see it. They sat in the theater, pointed their eyes at the screen, and then didn’t really take in what happens up there.
The war is never shown to be going well. It’s never shown to be doing any good. It’s not presented as serving any strategic purpose, never mind winning the war on terror. No Iraqis greet the troops as liberators. No schools get painted. No electricity is restored. No independent government is formed. No free elections are held. No one shows a purple finger. Nothing Kyle and the other Americans do is seen to advance the causes of justice, freedom for the Iraqis, or democracy in the Middle East. Nothing they do brings the defeat of Al Qaida closer or achieves even a modicum of revenge for 9/11. The Surge apparently happens but the result appears to be fewer Americans and more angry Iraqis with guns.
Kyle sees it as his responsibility to protect Iraqi civilians from “the savages.” But the Iraqi civilians he meets aren’t grateful for his protection. They don’t see him as protecting them at all. Just the opposite. They blame him and all the other Americans for making them targets for the savages. As far as they’re concerned, all the Americans are doing is getting them killed.
When we first see him in Iraq the country is clearly broken and nothing changes after that except that each time he returns for another of his four tours of duty the cities look more desolate, the troops more isolated, the streets and rooftops more crowded with people out to kill them.
All he manages to do is keep some of the Marines it’s his job to look out for alive to fight another day, which, we soon find out, means alive to die another day.
His most technically brilliant and remarkable shot is taken as a result of a mistake in judgment and brings about a near disaster.
With Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, and now American Sniper on his transcript, Cooper is on his way to putting together a body of work that should rank him near the top of the current class of leading men straddling forty---Cooper, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christian Bale, David Oyelowo, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ryan Gosling (actually a punk kid at thirty-five), Matt Damon, Joaquin Phoenix. Matthew McConaghey. (Will Smith is forty-six. Robert Downey Jr. is forty-nine. Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt are fifty-two. George Clooney is fifty-three! How did that happen?) The clip shown at the Academy Awards meant to give an idea why Copper was nominated for Best Actor isn’t really a good example of his work in American Sniper. It’s the scene in which Kyle loses it in the hospital nursery after his daughter is born and starts pounding on the glass and shouting at the nurses on the other side to take care of his crying infant. Cooper delivers anything but a shouty performance. Except for that scene, he only raises his voice to be heard over the noise of the fighting and confusion taking place around him in Iraq.
At his most together Cooper’s Kyle is low-key, easy-going, and not particularly demonstrative, and when he begins to come unglued his---Kyle’s---way of acting like nothing’s wrong is to try to be more like his regular self. It doesn’t work. He doesn’t talk less but he says less. The going is not easy at all. Cooper lets us see the rage and frustration building inside him. But he makes sure we see that Kyle is trying hard not to see it. As for demonstrative, when pushed or pressured for an emotional reaction to a situation or to something another character says his most expressive response is to go still as a stone.
A more representative scene---maybe the key scene---is also set stateside when Kyle is between tours. He’s in a garage waiting with his little boy for their car to be done and a young veteran of the war in Iraq who’s waiting for his car too recognizes Kyle as “the Legend.” He starts to gush, thanking Kyle profusely for what he did over there, for all the American lives he saved, and telling Kyle’s son what a hero his daddy is. Kyle tries to be polite. He fixes a sort of smile on his face. But we can see him going colder and colder. He’s looking at the vet but his eyes aren’t focused on him. It’s as if he’s trying not to see him. The vet lost a leg in the war and he lifts his pants cuff to show Kyle his metal prosthesis, Kyle stares at it blankly as if he has no idea what it is or why the vet thinks he’d be interested in seeing it. He makes a couple of compassionate-sounding noises but he doesn’t ask how the vet lost the leg or how he’s coping or express his sympathy with any sincerity. He doesn’t want to hear about it. He doesn’t want to talk about the war or its costs. He just wants to be left alone to go about his business as if nothing else but this has been his business all along.
It’s a more excruciating and embarrassing moment than the one in the hospital because at least there Kyle’s over-reaction is a reaction. It’s human. Here his reaction is to not have one and if it’s not inhuman it’s inhumane. It’s a chilling scene, Cooper’s best in the movie, and he hardly strings two words together during it.
Even when he’s talkative, Kyle’s not eloquent, but as he grows more inward and evasive, he borders on inarticulate. Eventually he gives up trying to make sense. He speaks in rearrangements of stock phrases, clichés, and bombastic non-sequiturs, reflexively avoiding saying anything that might reveal what he’s feeling or, more to the point, not feeling. This presents a problem for Eastwood he doesn’t completely solve: how do you tell a story about a character who can’t---because he won’t---speak for himself?
You have other characters speak for him. Taya and Kyle’s buddies have to tell us what’s happening to him, which they do by telling him what’s happening to him.
Kyle’s rote reply to anyone who asks if he regrets all the killing he’s done is to say that what he regrets is all the killings he failed to prevent. This is one way of saying he wishes he killed more people, but that’s not what he means. He means that he feels personally responsible for bringing every Marine and SEAL home alive and that’s why he won’t come home to stay. He can’t leave while he still has a job there to do.
His buddies are skeptical. They all want to go home. They no longer see any point to what they’re doing. One of his fellow SEALs suggests Kyle’s becoming addicted to war. Himself too. He compares what’s happening to both of them to when he was a kid and used to give himself a thrill by putting his hands on the electrified mesh of a neighbor’s chicken coop. The shock was painful but as soon as he could pull his hands away he’d grab hold again. “I think war’s like that,” this SEAL worries, “It puts lightning in your bones and makes everything else hard to hold onto.”
Taya will have none of it either. She’s worried the war is consuming him. “How long can you keep circling the flames?” she asks. But she takes it further.
She thinks he’s betraying her and their children.
As far as she’s concerned, in marrying her he promised to put her and the family they were going to make together ahead of everything else. When he goes to Iraq the first time, she doesn’t like it but she understands he can’t disobey orders. But when he keeps going back, he’s breaking his promise again and again and again. Kyle claims as a motto “God, Country, Family.” Taya’s motto is “Family!” The other two are taken care of when he takes care of that. His main responsibility, his duty, his job, is to stay here and take care of things at home.
Kyle, she insists, belongs here not in Iraq.
The inference is there to be drawn. Eastwood doesn’t draw it for us, but it’s there. By Taya’s lights, all our troops belong here at home taking care of their own and not over there.
As I said, I suspect people who think American Sniper is a pro-war movie didn’t see it. I also suspect they didn’t hear it. At least, they didn’t hear her.
If they did, they didn’t realize that Taya’s speaking from the movie’s moral center. And I wonder if this is because she seems too ordinary to carry this much moral authority.
But I think Taya’s perfect ordinariness is what gives her that authority and that it’s the signature beauty of Miller’s performance.
Cooper does an excellent job of not being a movie star. He’s aged past his pretty boy phase and he’s now leading man handsome, but he knows how to downplay his looks, even work against them, even disguise them with his expressions. He reshapes his face with his muscles not make-up. For most of American Sniper he wears a beard but that’s not what does it. He’s bulked up all around for the part and his cheeks have that shiny beefiness you see in the faces of some ballplayers and cops who’ve spent too much unsupervised time in the weight room. He looks like somebody you might see in real life. But you wouldn’t take him for ordinary. He’s too big. Too imposing. You couldn’t pass by him without doing a doubletake. You couldn’t find yourself next to him without feeling you had to watch your step.
But Miller does an even more effective job of not being a movie star. She makes Taya someone you wouldn’t necessarily overlook but whose presence anywhere wouldn’t surprise you. In fact, someone you’d expect to see. She’s familiar in the sense that all the people we meet in our daily comings and goings are familiar. Even when they’re complete strangers we deal with them as if we’ve always known them because, in a sense, we have. They’re just like everybody else. Taya is just like anybody you’d meet on line at the supermarket, in the stands at your kids’ soccer game, coming out the door of the dentist’s office as we are going in.
You might notice she’s pretty but you wouldn’t do a doubletake. It’d just be one item in a list of things you’d notice about her and not necessarily the first item on the list. Before you’d call her pretty, you’d more likely say she was nice-looking. That is she looks like a nice person. Nice enough. But nobody special. Ordinary.
And what she asks of Kyle is ordinary.
Please listen to me. Pay attention to the kids. Chip in around the house. Be here when we need you.
Come home. Stay home.
Miller delivers her lines without sounding like a scold but without sounding like she’s mounting a soapbox either. She has Taya speaking with ordinary practicality. And it’s that practicality that makes her morally compelling.
The things she needs to be taken care need to be taken care of. They are the things Kyle needs to be taking care of. His thinking he needs to be in Iraq is his mistake. And it’s a mistake that amounts to a moral failure.
Now comes the spoiler that won’t be a spoiler if you know the real Chris Kyle’s story.
Kyle finally does come home to stay. He gets to spend a few years living an ordinary life---ordinary by Taya’s definition, being a loving husband and father, taking care of his own. Just before the war reaches over here to claim him at last, Taya tells him she’s proud of him and she doesn’t mean she’s proud of Chris Kyle the Legend. She means she’s proud of him as a husband and father. And that’s who the war claims, that’s what it takes away. Not a war hero. It takes an ordinary man away from his family.
That’s what war does in American Sniper.
All it does.
It takes away.
This has nothing to do with anything, and I’m sure other people have noticed it, but American Sniper starring Bradley Cooper is sort of our era’s Sergeant York, which, of course, starred Gary Cooper. Different times, different sensibilities, very different types of heroes, but I think our Cooper would have made their Cooper proud.
Extended tour: Goes without saying, the real Chris Kyle and the movie’s Chris Kyle are not the same person. And the real Kyle did not live an “ordinary” life after he left the Navy. From the June 3, 2013 issue of the New Yorker: “Chris Kyle, a decorated sniper, tried to help a troubled veteran. The result was tragic.” In The Crosshairs by Nicholas Schmidle.
American Sniper, directed by Clint Eastwood, written by Jason Hall. Based on the book by Chris Kyle and Scott McEwan and Jim DeFelice. Starring Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Luke Grimes, Jake McDorman, Kevin Lacz, Cory Hardrict, and Navid Negahban. Rated R. Now in theaters.