by Sean Russell
This article first appeared in Havok Journal n 24JAN15.
There sure is a lot of hubbub these days about American Sniper, a biopic loosely based on Chris Kyle’s memoir of the same title. For any readers who haven’t yet seen it, the Clint Eastwood brand lives up to its name. American Sniper is slick, intense, and well-acted. It provides the viewer with some bloody, sexy special operations action you see in a Call of Duty: Modern Warfare game, or films like Zero-Dark-Thirty and Lone Survivor.
For all the clear market support for such a film – a gross of $100 million in its opening, a record for this time of year – American Sniper has come with its own to-be-expected set of controversies.
Michael Moore’s tweet in particular begs our attention. It’s all inflammatory, hyper-liberal, so tastelessly left of center I am in awe of his ability to incite so much with only 140 characters:
“My uncle killed by sniper in WW2. We were taught snipers were cowards. Will shoot you in the back. Snipers aren’t heroes. And invaders r worse”.
The timing, the distain, Moore’s inflammatory tweet is almost a parody of itself, going so over-the-top in a way that makes fun of itself.
He doesn’t stop there. In a follow tweet which surprisingly has crept under the radar Moore tweets in support of the Iraqi insurgency:
“But if you’re on the roof of your home defending it from invaders who’ve come 7K miles, you are not a sniper, u are brave, u are a neighbor.”
His rhetoric masterfully stops short of outright stating he hates America, but we get the subtext here. You’re brave if you’re an insurgent sniper, not an American one.
On the other hand, the right-wing outcry to Moore’s attention seeking is vaguely embarrassing, usually parroting the “the only reason you have the right to say that is because of the troops” sentiment which, even if true on some level, begins to resemble the “They took ‘er jobs” mantra from a South Park episode.
The best response to Michael Moore I’ve found is to publicly fat-shame him and his childish market of self-loathing Americans. But a more mature reply can be found with the Nick Irving response, “I don’t think he deserves the breath that comes out of me right now.”
In addition to Michael Moore, Canadian Seth Rogan’s flippant tweet also deserves a mention. Comparing American Sniper to the Nazi propaganda film from Inglorious Basterds  was tasteless. But he was probably just making fun of the patriotic overtones of the film, not politically comparing the American military to the Nazis. More importantly, he’s a Canadian comedian so I give him a pass. If there’s anything more benign than the ultra-beta-male persona of Seth Rogan, who’s trademark pear-shape figure and soft facial features cry “non-threatening” louder (or softer) than a soy-infused male vegan, I haven’t found it.
There’s a more subtle discussion to be had of the American Sniper and America’s complex reaction to the film. Let’s face it, sniper is a charged word. A sniper is a killing machine. A ninja. That solitary badass that sneaks in the cover of darkness and neutralizes enemy combatants. But as much as Americans fetishize the ninja badassery of special operations snipers, Americans cringe at political incorrectness. A sniper shouldn’t enjoy his job too much.
Therefore, it is imperative that Chris Kyle represent the reluctant the hero, the man dismayed by his job to kill insurgents, but does it anyway to save American lives. This narrative is largely achieved in the film American Sniper. Toss in a dose of “war is hell”, “raise PTSD awareness,” and “bridge the civilian/military divide” sentiment and you’ve got a winner. Clint Eastwood does this masterfully, while the Kyle memoir is much more alienating to the broader American audience.
There’s an undercurrent of criticism to the largely positive response to the film. Lyndy West, in her predictably viral critique of the film had less problems with Eastwood’s interpretation than Kyle’s personal memoir. She writes that he “described killing as ‘fun’, something he ‘loved’; he was unwavering in his belief that everyone he shot was a ‘bad guy’. ‘I hate the damn savages,’ he wrote. ‘I couldn’t give a flying fuck about the Iraqis.’” West begs her audience to see the moral gray, calls Kyle a hate-filled killer, and asks how patriots could treat such a man, a racist man at best, a serial killer at worst, as a hero.
And so we fall on the conundrum of how to properly praise the special operation sniper. On the one hand, Kyle killed a whole bunch of people. To put it bluntly that makes great cinema; I don’t care how much people say the story is rooted in his family back home. Between the special effects, pulse pounding realism, and cool-guy beards, Oakley’s, and big guns, American Sniper makes a slick war movie. Hell, as the film’s distributor puts it: “This is the first ‘real’ superhero movie.”
On the other hand, it’s imperative that while America will hungrily consume tickets to the film, (after all, even Seth Rogan “actually liked American Sniper”) they cannot stomach making a hero out of a man who could have in any way enjoyed his job overseas, or treats death callously. Nowhere in the Eastwood film does Cooper say that he “doesn’t’ give a flying fuck about the Iraqis” or that any of his kills were “fun”. And yet, Americans enjoy a “riveting” film that gives a critic the sensation of “being there – right in the midst of a war zone, where life and death rely on split second decisions.”
But the experience of viewing American Sniper is indeed “fun.” Any review will note the level of tension, suspense, and gritty realism of the film. Several critics have even complained at audiences clapping at the conclusion of a certain sniper shot that goes right through an insurgent’s melon. This is to say, you can enjoy the war porn as long as you do it tastefully. Don’t clap, lest you be judged by a critic.
I liked American Sniper. I liked the war scenes, the hip stylization of Iraq, the sniper-dogfight and phone calls home during firefights. It’s okay to call it an action movie.
I’d end by saying that the response to American Sniper largely mirrors my experience talking to civilians after my own tours as a special operations sniper. People really, really want to hear the sexy stuff. Just don’t be too enthusiastic about it either. I could never break certain narratives without completely alienating my audience. So if you’re a veteran, remember to play the reluctant hero. Civilians love that shit.