My son and I saw American Sniper last night. As drama, it is a very fine film, as might be expected of anything that Clint Eastwood directs. As life, which it depicts, it is tragic. As a metaphor for U.S. contemporary history, it is intensely sobering. Talking about it with friends this afternoon, I have also learned that it has become controversial.
Chris Kyle sees the world through a Manichean lens, black and white. There is an affecting pureness in him, especially when, as a child, he defends his brother, or as an adult, he falls in love. The film offers his father as cause for the conviction. Pulling a belt out of his pants at the dinner table to reinforce his instruction on a Biblical notion of “sheep (those who need protecting),” “wolves” (evil), and “sheepdogs” (those who protect the sheep), he terrifies the young Kyle who nonetheless internalizes the defense and absorbs it into his own adult identity as a Navy SEAL with rock-solid commitment to defend the United States. Al Qaeda and its supporters are “savages,” but as a legendary sniper he demonstrates humane distinctions between children and enemy attackers. The totality of the experience takes its toll on him when he returns home between, and finally after, four tours of duty. Emotionally traumatized while remaining rigid in his beliefs, it takes a loving wife, two beautiful children and acts of kindness towards his fellow wounded veterans to come around psychologically. Spoiler for those who are not already familiar with the true story: a psychotic veteran murders him on an outing designed to help.
A few tears dripped out of me at the end of the film for the awful wastefulness of it all. And then in the discussion of the movie today, but for the fact that we were in a sweet café, I could have wept remembering my father’s nightmares and screams that were the occasional post traumatic distress symptoms of his on-the-front-line of Pacific invasions of Tinian, Saipan and Okinawa. At age 80 watching Saving Private Ryan when it came out in theaters, he transitioned from anger to tears. He told me about how he broke down in the scene when the military car weaves its way to the Sullivan home. He, too, had four brothers in the service. What so saddened him was the sudden awareness of the dread with which his mother lived through those years.
What my father and his brothers gave to this country. What the Kyle family sacrificed. What the person and family of Eddie Ray Routh experienced having the military fail to miss his fundamental instabilities only to exacerbate them through service. Is irony all that is left to us? To turn our own into the “savage” that slays Kyle? If ever there was a story – real life and in film – whose ultimate message is about the significance of gray in thinking about the history, meaning, and future of the United States Empire, American Sniper is the one.
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