I get what American Sniper is trying to do. I really do. Clint Eastwood’s film is attempting to convey the grit, the determination, the pure endurance of seeing a belief through to its end. I served alongside a few guys like Bradley Cooper’s Chris Kyle in Iraq, guys whom I considered true believers — soldiers who operated in a world that was cut-and-dried, one filled with terrorists and violent extremists and foreign fighters and jihadists armed with RPGs, 9/11 as Exhibit A for why the trigger needed to be pulled. I’ve kicked in doors and taken part in the hunt for some of those same enemies. I was there, and I remember the signature of an Iraqi sniper working in our sector as he adjusted his sight picture — wounding one soldier at a time until he started killing and continued on killing after I’d completed my deployment and headed home. I’ve run for cover when the mortars came down, and I know, deep in my body, deeper than language, what it’s like to be afraid for my life, and yet I did my best to remain professional and true to the guys to my left and right as we saw the moment through to its conclusion.
I remember seeing key chains displayed at a vendor’s booth in a market north of Baghdad — Osama bin Laden’s photograph on one side, smiling, the Twin Towers burning on the reverse side. It pissed me off, holding it in my hands, knowing that merchants only stock what sells. The mathematics of certain moments sometimes have a crystallizing quality to them. When one of the children we often joked with threw a grenade into the vacant building we used as an observation post, a building we’d just handed off to the Second Platoon, it was a hard lesson in the reality of war, one that steeled us away from placing any amount of trust in a single soul during our year in-country. There’s a scene — scenes, actually — in American Sniper where Chris Kyle struggles with the decision to shoot a child. Those scenes dredged up memories of Mosul and Baghdad, where I once heard the words You are authorized to shoot children come crackling over the radio. I also remember watching soldiers in my own platoon lob plastic water bottles filled with their own urine at village children who would run to us as we drove by — thirsty children who motioned with their thumbs to their mouths in a gesture pleading for water. There is truth in American Sniper, whether you think the film is crass jingoism or a portrait of a hero.
The film made me remember something else, too: the oft-repeated phrase We should just drop a nuke and turn this whole goddamn place into a glass fucking parking lot. This was an enlargement of what I’d regularly heard prior to deploying from Ft. Lewis, Washington: I’m going to go over there and shoot somebody in the face. And so, what started as an erasure of the signature of one’s identity, their face, evolved into the complete erasure of a civilization. But the thing is, I don’t think there was any clue about what was actually being erased in the first place. And in that cluelessness lays the problem with American Sniper.
In the years to come, Eastwood and Cooper’s film will surely be held up as a paragon of filmmaking craftsmanship, and the argument around it as being indicative of a specific time in our collective experience. It’s a solid, well-made film, and Cooper, with that great Texas drawl and those heavy eyes, knocks it out of the park. I was grateful that Eastwood chose to visually elide Kyle’s own tragic death, thus creating a space of silence and respect for the soldier and his family. Likewise, the final ride of his hearse poignantly pulled the fictional into the biographical. (It’s also possible that showing Kyle’s murder at the alleged hands of a troubled veteran would’ve muddied Eastwood’s ending. But I prefer a more generous interpretation.) In Cooper’s version of Kyle, I recognized many of the soldiers I served with during my own time overseas, men whose example I respected and did my best to emulate. So, again, I get American Sniper. I do. But it’s myopic. I’m not saying that there aren’t characters in real life like those depicted in the film. And I can see how Eastwood’s gunslinging, black-hat-white-hat approach (replete with dueling snipers) mirrors the controversy and release of, to pick another war movie from another divisive time, John Wayne’s The Green Berets (1968), which, too, was valorized by hawks and condemned by doves. These are polarizing films, ones that inspired conversation, argument, contemplation. Once the dust settles, though, what do we learn from American Sniper?
This isn’t the defining film of the Iraq War. After nearly a quarter century of war and occupation in Iraq, we still haven’t seen that film. I’m beginning to think we’re incapable as a nation of producing a film of that magnitude, one that would explore the civilian experience of war, one that might begin to approach so vast and profound a repository of knowledge. I’m more and more certain that, if such a film film ever arrives, it’ll be made by Iraqi filmmakers a decade or more from now, and it’ll be little known or viewed, if at all, on our shores. The children of Iraq have far more to teach me about the war I fought in than any film I’ve yet seen — and I hope some of those children have the courage and opportunity to share their lessons onscreen. If this film I can only vaguely imagine is ever made, it certainly won’t gross $100 million on its opening weekend.
The biggest problem I have with American Sniper is also a problem I have with myself. It’s a problem I sometimes find in my own work, and it’s an American problem: We don’t see, or even try to see, actual Iraqi people. We lack the empathy necessary to see them as fully human. In American Sniper, Iraqi men, women, and children are known and defined only in relation to combat and the potential threat they pose. Their bodies are the site and source of violence. In both the film and our collective imagination, their humanity is reduced in ways that, ultimately, define our own narrow humanity. In American Sniper, Iraqis are called “savages,” and the “streets are crawling” with them. Eastwood and his screenwriter Jason Hall give Iraqis no memorable lines. Their interior lives are a blank canvas, with no access points to let us in. I get why that is: If Iraqis are seen in any other light, if their humanity is recognized, then the construct of our imagination, the ride-off-into-the-sunset-on-a-white-horse story we tell ourselves to push forward, falls apart.
If we saw Iraqis as humans, we’d have to learn how to live in a world far, far more complicated and painful than the difficult, painful one we currently live in. Messy, trauma-filled, beautiful, and altogether human; all of us breathing the oxygen of our time. We’d have to learn something more than how to return home and how to reintegrate our warrior class in America — which, to its credit, is a problem that American Sniper acknowledges. We’d have to let go of our fascination with Odysseus and the hero’s return. We’d have to see everyone — not just Americans (or the ones we agree with politically, anyway) — as the family they’ve always been to us. And we’d to have to, as they say, get back to the world.
Brian Turner is the author of My Life as a Foreign Country: A Memoir.
American Sniper may be quickly stealing the title of the most politically controversial film this Oscar season, but screenwriter Jason Hall maintains he just penned a portrait of a beleaguered soldier — not a political statement. The biopic of Chris Kyle, who the Navy credits with the most kills in American military history, broke January records with a whopping $90.2 million at the box office over the weekend in spite of — or perhaps because of — critics who say the film glorifies a murderer, not to mention a war America never had any business fighting in the first place.
“People see the movie poster, and it’s got a guy and the American flag, and they know Clint Eastwood — the Dirty Harry guy and the Republican convention guy — directed it,” says screenwriter Jason Hall. “So they think it’s some jingoistic thing. I would challenge that in a big way. Chris was a man who believed in something and who therefore was useful to a government that needed him to go to war. It cost him his physical health, his mental health and almost cost him his family — but Chris probably would have paid the price over and over again if he’d been asked, which is both patriotic and totally tragic.”
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Actor Seth Rogen and director Michael Moore stoked the controversy over the weekend when they each tweeted what were widely interpreted as criticisms of the film. Rogen wrote: “‘American Sniper’ kind of reminds me of the movie that’s showing in the third act of ‘Inglourious Basterds,’” referencing the fictional Nazi propaganda film about a German sniper featured in Quentin Tarantino’s movie. Meanwhile, Moore tweeted that he had always been taught snipers were “cowards.” Both Rogen and Moore have since backpedaled on these comments: Rogen explained in another tweet that he “actually liked” the movie, while Moore penned a lengthy Facebook post praising Bradley Cooper’s performance as Kyle.
But other detractors have pointed to Chris Kyle’s controversial 2013 book, also titled American Sniper, in which Kyle unabashedly referred to enemies in Iraq as “damn savages” and shared statements like, “I don’t shoot people with Korans. I’d like to, but I don’t.” Several journalists (most notably New Yorker writer Nicholas Schmindle) have tried and failed to corroborate some of the tales in the memoir, including one in which Kyle shot and killed two armed men trying to steal his truck in Texas and another in which Kyle set up as a sniper atop the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina and shot 30 looters. After the book was published, Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura sued Kyle for claiming that he had punched out the politician for disparaging Navy SEALs. Ventura won $1.8 million in damages last summer.
“That book — you hear the voice of the warrior, not a civilian, and I think it turned people here in Hollywood off,” says Hall, who believes that Kyle was pressured into hiding his softer side in the memoir for the sake of sales. “Everybody in Hollywood was like, ‘We don’t want to see an Iraq war movie. Everyone was against it, and we kind of lost, didn’t we?'”
But Hall pitched a portrait of a man who had been deeply changed by war and was struggling to spiritually return to the person he had once been — a pitch that eventually convinced Bradley Cooper to buy the rights. Hall had met Chris “The Legend” Kyle before the book’s publication in 2010, and — after years of talking with Kyle — decided that the soldier had been more affected by his high body count than he let on to the public.
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But finding the softer side of the “old school cowboy” who didn’t like chatting about his feelings took persistence. Kyle ignored Hall’s daily phone calls, responding with text messages instead, and answered questions like, “What was it like to kill a man?” with one or two words. Kyle didn’t care about political correctness and said so in a Facebook post. He gave Craft International, a defense contractor he founded and presided over until his death, this motto: “Despite what your momma told you, violence does solve problems.” That’s the Kyle audiences see in the war part of the film, the Kyle that critics object to.
“It felt like he was still at war, even though he was standing in Texas,” Hall says.
It wasn’t until after Kyle’s death that Hall learned more about what he calls the SEAL’s softer side. Kyle dedicated his post-war life to helping his fellow veterans. He started a business that installed exercise equipment inside veterans’ homes and even began spending time in small groups with vets who needed to talk about their problems. He would often take these men out to shooting ranges where they could bond and talk to them about their struggles with finding jobs, re-acclimating to family life and PTSD. It was on one of these trips that Kyle was killed — by a marine who he was trying to help.
That made the stakes for Hall even higher. Hall recalls a moment just after Kyle’s funeral, where he was sitting around a pool deck in Texas with about 15 SEALs. At that point, Hall had been working on his screenplay for three years; he had turned in his first draft just one day before Kyle was killed.
Hall doesn’t drink, but the rest of the men on the deck did. “One guy picks me out and is like, ‘You’re not even drinking, dude. Why are you even here? Get the f— out of here.'” When Hall told them he just wanted to tell Kyle’s story, the SEAL yelled at him again to go back to his room.
“I knew these guys were rough housers, and I was like, ‘Look man, I’m not going anywhere, but if you want, we can wrestle.’ So he threw down his beer and came charging at me.” Hall had some experience from wrestling as a kid and was ready for the SEAL. “I took him down. He clipped his head. It was nasty. I was bleeding — he was bleeding. I let him up, and he wanted to go again. We went four times. And at the end of it, I think he threw up. He gave me a big hug, and was like, ‘You’re a f—ing badass. I’ll tell you whatever you want to know.”
And they did. “When anyone challenges this story or thinks that I didn’t try to put the whole story out there, I’m like, ‘You know what? I bled for this thing,'” Hall says.
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After the funeral, Hall and Kyle’s wife Taya spent over 200 hours on the phone together. Taya told him of their courtship, their marital struggles, and how it took years for Kyle to finally reconnect emotionally with her and the kids. “The first draft of the script that I had was a war movie,” says Hall. “Then I talked to Taya, and I saw what was at stake for him emotionally. I saw similar themes to The Odyssey. The second draft turned into this story about what it costs these men to go to war and how they find their way back.”