For years it’s been a film-industry truism (and, one imagines, a studio-boardroom cautionary tale) that movies about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan perform poorly at the box office. Kimberly Peirce’s Stop-Loss, Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah and Paul Greengrass’ Green Zone asked searching questions about the human costs of America’s post-9/11 interventions—questions that echoed through near-empty theaters. Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty presented the Iraq war and the hunt for Osama bin Laden far more ambiguously, as moral crucibles that tested their heroes’ strength of character much as these conflicts have tested the nation’s. That nuanced, patriotic-yet-critical stance helped to earn Bigelow’s films widespread plaudits (including a history-making Oscar), decent box-office business, and more than a little public pushback, notably from those critics and viewers (like John McCain) who saw Zero Dark Thirty as a retroactive justification for torture in the bin Laden manhunt.
But last weekend, a defiantly unambiguous Iraq war movie—Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, based on the best-selling memoir of legendary sharpshooter Chris Kyle—mopped the floor with everything else currently playing in theaters. In fact, American Sniper’s $105.3 million bounty trounced the opening-weekend box-office returns of every R-rated movie in history with the exception of The Matrix Reloaded. (It broke a bunch of other records besides, including earning more on Friday than any Eastwood-directed film has ever earned in an entire weekend.) In the past few days Eastwood’s film has become a fight-starting tinderbox on Twitter and in the media, with Michael Moore expressing dismay at the film’s romanticization of sniper warfare, and Seth Rogen comparing Sniper to the fictional Nazi propaganda film featured in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. (Rogen later walked that criticism back with an admission that he liked the movie, making him, I guess, a sympathizer with metaphorical fake Nazis?) Jane Fonda, of all people, has tweeted enthusiastically in the film’s defense, calling it “another view of Coming Home.” Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin (who knew Chris Kyle personally, having met him when he served on her security team in 2011) have unsheathed their rhetorical swords, with Palin taking to her ever-combative Facebook page to remind “Hollywood leftists” that “the rest of America knows you’re not fit to shine Chris Kyle’s combat boots.”
What the hell is going on? Why is American Sniper touching so many nerves, provoking so many big statements and confusing qualifiers, selling so many tickets, and provoking such partisan bluster? It’s been, after all, nearly a dozen years since the invasion of Iraq and almost as long since most of the country—including many who had initially supported the war, and many who fought in it—began to realize with dawning horror that our intervention there was turning into a bloody and directionless quagmire. Why this film, and why now?
American Sniper explores the psychic damage war inflicts on soldiers; the addictive nature of high-stakes battle (Bradley Cooper’s Kyle insists on returning to Iraq for four full tours of duty); and the difficulty of integrating back into everyday family life upon returning from a war zone. Every one of these issues has been dealt with, often with more nuance and depth, in other movies about returning vets. (I’m thinking in particular of two fine recent dramas about female soldiers back from war, both directed by women: Liza Johnson’s Return and Claudia Myers’ Fort Bliss.)
But Eastwood’s high-octane war thriller does offer something all those Iraq-vet movies don’t—and it isn’t just red meat for the red-state audiences who share Eastwood’s conservative political leanings. American Sniper is by no stretch a critique of the U.S. involvement in Iraq; Eastwood leaves larger questions of politics and policy entirely outside the frame of his story, an approach not uncommon in modern war films of any political stripe. But it doesn’t feel right, either, to classify this somber, disturbing film as a red-white-and-blue-bunting–draped piece of feel-good propaganda—the kind of film New York’s David Edelstein has called a “Republican platform movie.”
American Sniper (which was written by Jason Hall) has a perspective that’s recognizable from the classic Westerns Eastwood has long been associated with, both as an actor and a director. It’s an existential critique of violent machismo that doubles as a celebration of violence. With more cinematic craft than he’s displayed in a while, Eastwood makes the viewer alternate between fear for Kyle’s life and fear for the lives of the people who cross through his gun sights—more than once, women or children, whom he must decide whether or not to shoot based only on fragments of unreliable information. There are moments when American Sniper unabashedly revels in its hero’s skill at marksmanship—he’s the fastest shot in the Middle East, a Navy SEAL with an unequaled 150-plus “kill record.” One climactic scene has Kyle trying to nail an opponent from a rooftop a mile away; I won’t tell you whether the bullet hits its mark, but we accompany its journey from Kyle’s gun in slow-motion close-up, which tells you all you need to know about that moment’s tone.
But the movie’s occasional triumphalism doesn’t mean Eastwood presents Kyle’s relationship to his deadly work as morally untroubled. On the contrary—the toll Kyle’s military service takes on his mental and emotional health, and the damage his unacknowledged PTSD does to his marriage to the devoted but fraying Taya (Sienna Miller), becomes the almost exclusive focus of the second half of the movie. The tension in their marriage feels almost like the lead-up to a psychological horror film about domestic violence—at least until an unconvincingly easy late-movie reversal, in which Kyle somehow lifts himself out of paralyzing anxiety and depression without ever acknowledging the hold they had on him.
In this year’s Slate Movie Club, Amy Nicholson called American Sniper “one of the most mendacious movies of 2014.” There’s a separate and lively debate happening about American Sniper’s fidelity both to the truth of Chris Kyle’s memoir and of his life, which came to an end in 2013 when he was killed by a disturbed fellow veteran at a Texas shooting range—a tragic end that Eastwood notes only in an onscreen card. Eastwood and Hall also omitted a number of embarrassing details that would take away from the heroic version of Kyle the movie presents, including Kyle’s habit of publicly bragging about violence he never actually committed. Cooper’s Chris Kyle is a troubled, taciturn hunk who, even as his mental condition gets worse, never fully loses his core warmth and humanity, whereas the real-life man he’s based on was by many accounts a fairly unsavory human being. I can’t speak to the veracity questions, only to this movie’s own truth, but I must say: What I saw onscreen in American Sniper didn’t feel like a justification of war as much as a character portrait of one devoted but damaged soldier. (Cooper, bulked-up and bearded, plays a much less introspective character than he usually does without a trace of artifice or condescension, and makes a fairly solid stab at a West Texas accent.)
Still, there’s undeniably something upsetting about Eastwood’s tendency to film the Iraqi characters as an undifferentiated mass of potentially menacing “others”—an inbuilt xenophobia that’s not uncommon to this director’s films, though it’s arguably present in nearly every Hollywood movie about a Middle Eastern conflict (not to mention the cowboys-and-Indians Westerns to which this movie’s ethos harks back). I think I get why American Sniper has deeply moved some audiences, and I certainly understand why it has made others angry. For myself, I found it powerful, touching, and only occasionally infuriating, and I think Americans who care about the way we remember the Iraq war—onscreen and off—should see it.