With a war lost by the president whom liberals urged, indeed demanded, to abandon unsettled Iraq to the rule of chaos, and with the conflict’s cultural divisions pushed off the front page, the cultural commentariat let down its collective guard. Its panjandra had no idea the effect a movie like American Sniper could have in 2015—no idea that a film reenacting wartime heroics by the actor who played the cad in The Hangover as directed by the octogenarian who talked to a chair at the 2012 Republican National Convention would become a cultural phenomenon.
American Sniper is a film that caught movie critics unaware. It went unmentioned by anyone (except me) in balloting for year-end awards held by the unanimously liberal members (except me) of the New York Film Critics Circle, some of whom hadn’t even bothered to see the film before voting. It was largely ignored by Oscar prognosticators. Even the data nerds couldn’t grasp its importance: Box-office projections said the film would open to $40 or $45 million in the first three days in wide release. It earned $89 million instead. Its phenomenal reach is all but unheard-of for a war movie, for an R-rated movie, for a movie about a real person, for a movie with a serious purpose. In the last 25 years, the only two thematically comparable American films of equivalent success are Mel Gibson’s 2004 Passion of the Christ, which earned $371 million in North America, and Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, from 1998, the last year in which a film not essentially juvenile topped the annual box-office chart.
So rich and subtle and anguished and credible is Bradley Cooper as real-life Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, and so stirring and gut-wrenching and vital is Eastwood’s film, that Oscar voters noticed. When the entire critical fraternity, and the burgeoning awards-prediction business, was pushing Academy voters to guilt-vote for Selma, an honorable but stolid and homework-y chunk of didacticism, the incurably liberal Academy made Sniper a frontrunner, shortlisting it for best picture, actor, screenplay, and three other honors.
All of this happened so quickly, over the course of a few weeks at the tail end of 2014 and the beginning of 2015, that it came as a kind of gut punch to the cultural gatekeepers, who had no idea American Sniper was coming and were genuinely gobsmacked at the overwhelming national response to it. It hit them right where it hurts. For while expressing support for the troops has become as rote a ritual as singing the National Anthem at a ballgame, for many who have opposed the war, the support has always come with an asterisk. For surely, just as the country rapidly changed its mind about gay marriage, it was finally catching up to the implicit view of political and cultural icons from the Iraq War–decade such as Michael Moore and Howard Dean: that American troops were murderous cowards at worst and delusional puppets at best who rampaged across Mesopotamia to depose one regime and install a new government without the say-so of the Iraqis themselves. Was not Iraq’s future solely the business of Iraqis? Anyway, wasn’t the scale of “murder” carried out by U.S. forces comparable to, maybe even worse than, that of the Saddam Hussein regime itself?
To which one might, even now, reply: Yes, how dared we depose a brutal dictator, release political prisoners, establish security for others at enormous cost to ourselves, and work to bestow an unprecedented secular liberal democracy with fully enfranchised women on a major Arab country that might serve as a beacon that could reshape Arab and Muslim thinking? How dared we toil to create the possibility that our grandchildren might have no more fear of Iraq and Iran than we do of Italy and Germany?
This is what some of us might reply. Indeed, it is what Christopher Kyle, the late author of the memoir on which the movie is based, effectively did reply in his book. But it is not the answer that Clint Eastwood’s film of Christopher Kyle’s memoir offers. American Sniper the movie resolutely declines to make the case for the Iraq War. If anything, the film takes a stand against the invasion, as indeed does its director, who never supported it, which places him to the left of Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Joe Biden. One of the film’s most powerful moments is the funeral reading of a letter from fallen SEAL Marc Lee that asked, “When does glory fade away and become a wrongful crusade?” In order to weave Lee’s pained doubts about the war into the narrative, Eastwood fudges facts—Kyle was not present at Lee’s funeral as he is in the film. Eastwood’s inclusion of the letter amounts to the same sort of concealed editorializing that you find daily in the New York Times, when a reporter launders his views by locating and quoting a like-minded “expert.”
Eastwood hates the war. But he clearly loves the warrior. And that has driven a notable cross-section of the Hollywood-journalism-left complex into what the medical literature defines as a grade-five superconniption. Seth Rogen, the Canadian comic who espouses a thought-free undergrad-style liberalism (“Where I come from,” he once declared, “‘Communism’ is not a terrible word”) said American Sniper reminded him of Nazi propaganda. Michael Moore dubbed snipers “cowards” and called our Iraq war enemies “brave.” MSNBC’s Ayman Mohyeldin called Kyle a “racist” who went on “killing sprees.” A.O. Scott of the New York Times scolded the film for being “an expression of nostalgia for [George W. Bush’s] Manichaean approach to foreign policy.”
Such people aren’t guilty of Manichean foreign policy. They’re guilty of kindergarten foreign policy: Killing is bad. Killers are bad. Killers of people of different races are especially bad. In a Guardian piece by American feminist Lindy West, a headline read: “Chris Kyle was a hate-filled killer. Why are simplistic patriots treating him as a hero?” Writer Rania Khalek dubbed Kyle an “American Psycho.” Alternet writer Max Blumenthal compared Kyle to Beltway sniper “John Lee Malvo” (sic: the long-range murderers were John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo).
All of these infantile moral-equivalence arguments were considered by their authors to be mainstream enough to state in public. But they were speaking to a different country than the one of their imagination. The military is, and has been for some time, by a considerable margin the most respected institution in American life, with approval ratings ranging from 69 to 82 percent over the last decade, according to Gallup polls.
Stout-hearted, determined, professional, immensely skilled, and an emissary of moral order, Bradley Cooper’s Chris Kyle is one of the great military heroes in cinematic history. In the memoir, Kyle comes across as something of a swaggerer, and he has been revealed to have fabricated some of his stories, but it’s critical to Eastwood’s film that Kyle is not the one telling the story. During the film’s gestation period, screenwriter Jason Hall met with Kyle many times, and he was telling the story from Kyle’s point of view, when the Navy SEAL died at the hands of a fellow veteran in 2013 at a shooting range in Texas. This unexpected ending (handled with devastating restraint in the film) sent Hall back to Kyle’s widow, Taya, to add layers to the character. Kyle is very much an unreliable witness of his own soul when he states hauntingly in the film, “I’m willing to meet my Creator and answer for every shot.” He sees killing the “savages”—by which he clearly means enemy combatants, not Arabs or Muslims—as a kind of sacred calling akin to the one embraced by the legendary World War I hero Alvin York, but in Bradley Cooper’s eyes we can see the toll of duty. He says his soul is at rest. We know it isn’t.
Eastwood leaves you to your opinion on the Iraq War. American Sniper may leave you weeping with despair that we ever launched a war there in the first place, or equally heartbroken that a president simply threw away the fragile order purchased with the lives of more than 4,000 of our bravest brothers and sisters. American Sniper brooks no doubt, however, about the debt we owe our warrior class. Its reverence for those who carry arms in our name has gone nearly unseen at the movies for two generations; hence the thirst for the film in a country where 61 percent say an immediate family member has served. Some public screenings of the film have ended with the audience coming to its feet and standing in respectful silence, as if at a memorial service—which the film is.
We mourn the death of Chris Kyle at the hands of a fellow former steward of our highest ideals, but Kyle is a synecdoche. He is one of millions of grunts and sailors and flyboys and leathernecks standing in formation in a line back to Omaha Beach and Vicksburg and Valley Forge. Eastwood is the first director both inclined to salute the entire parade, including those still in uniform today, and skilled enough to summon the full force of Hollywood emotional imagery to provide a stricken but grateful nation a long-needed moment to pay respect to our troops and their sacrifices in Iraq.