So I finally saw American Sniper yesterday.
Short review: You should too. Right now.
Slightly longer review: Based on Chris Kyle’s autobiography and a well-crafted script by actor/writer Jason Hall, this is a surprisingly multifaceted movie that asks the questions that Hollywood rarely explores, and certainly not with this depth: in the 21st century, in an era of an all-volunteer military, what is it that makes a man volunteer? And once he’s done his time “in country,” what is it that makes him return back there again and again? For Kyle, it becomes not letting his fellow soldiers down and, in the story that provides the arc that structures the film’s scenes set in Iraq, killing his Syrian counterpart “Mustafa,” which gives the film the resonance of Ahab versus the whale, or Clint Eastwood’s earlier film about an obsessed man with a rifle, White Hunter, Black Heart.
With the rare exception of Eastwood himself, few who reach the upper echelons of Hollywood have ever served in the military, and, as Bill Clinton would say, most loathe the military and those who serve. Which is why so few films of this nature have been made since the late 1960s, when the young, largely left-wing turks began to succeed the men who originally built Hollywood. Or in the few cases they have, such as Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July, invariably, after returning home, soldiers are depicted as wild-eyed near-psychopaths, unable to return to their families and civilian life in general. That’s not the story depicted here, which is yet another reason why reactionary Hollywood lefties such as Michael Moore and Seth Rogen are having aneurisms over this film, and reliving the late ’60s and 1970s, when left-wing Hollywood frequently smeared the US military in the worst possible light.
Similarly, given the era in which it was released, American Sniper is serving as much of a litmus test to see where the rest of Hollywood and film critics stand on Iraq and the American military as did Eastwood’s Dirty Harry and the left’s efforts to promote violence for its own sake and weaken law enforcement in the late 1960s and early 1970s. At the Weekly Standard, in a piece titled, “The ‘American Sniper’ Freakout,” Mark Hemingway writes, “Leftists simply can’t digest the fact that their own safety is predicated on the willingness to fight of courageous men they openly disdain.”
Which is yet another reason to go see it.
So beyond all that, as Max Boot asked this past Thursday at Commentary, why all the criticism?
Perhaps because almost all of the Iraqis are depicted as bad guys–or to use the word that Kyle used “savages”–while Kyle and his SEAL teammates are depicted as dedicated professionals who try as hard as possible to avoid killing civilians. Although the movie shows a scene at the beginning of Kyle killing a woman and her child who are carrying a grenade to blow up a Marine column (in reality he only killed the woman–there was no child present), it later shows how relieved he is that a child who picked up a rocket-propelled grenade and aimed it an American Humvee put down the weapon and ran away before Kyle could shoot him. This is, in short, not a movie like Platoon or Born on the Fourth of July or In the Valley of Elah or MASH that depicts American soldiers in the worst possible light.
But guess what? In my experience having visited Iraq a number of times during the war, Clint Eastwood, the movie’s director, is telling it like it is. Oh sure, large elements of the film are fictionalized (no, Kyle did not have a personal duel with a Syrian sniper called Mustafa), as is the case with pretty much every Hollywood movie. But the movie gets the larger truth right–that, with some lamentable and inevitable exceptions, American soldiers did behave themselves in exemplary fashion in Iraq, certainly compared to their enemies who drove car bombs into crowds of civilians and ruthless tortured to death anyone they suspected of opposing them.
Which reminded me of Tom Wolfe’s response to his critics when asked if his breakthrough first novel Bonfire of the Vanities was racist.
In February of 1989, Wolfe was interviewed by Time magazine about Bonfire. (Coincidentally or not, the interview occurred right around the time that producer Peter Guber was asking Tom Hanks if he’d like to star in the movie version of the book for Warner Brothers, owned by the same conglomerate that owned Time.) One of the interviewer’s questions was, “Bonfire has received great critical acclaim, but critics have also called it cynical, racist, elitist,” to which Wolfe replied:
That’s nonsense. I throw the challenge to them: if you think it is false, go out and do what I did. Go beyond the cocoon of your apartment and [get in a] taxicab and take a look. Take notes. Then let’s compare notes. I’ll bet your picture of New York is not very different from mine.
What they are really saying is that I violated a certain etiquette in literary circles that says you shouldn’t be altogether frank about these matters of ethnic and racial hostility. But if you raise the issue, a certain formula is to be followed: you must introduce a character, preferably from the streets, who is enlightened and shows everyone the error of his ways, so that by the time the story is over, everyone’s heading off wiser. There has to be a moral resolution. Unfortunately, life isn’t like that. I felt that if you are going to try to write a novel about New York, you cannot play falsely with the issue of ethnic and racial hostility. You can’t invent implausible morality tales and make it all go away in some fictitious fashion.
Hollywood war movies often have a similar formula: Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket features non-stop crudely misogynistic jokes from the film’s ultra-macho Marines and a scene in which Lee Ermey’s martinet drill instructor mocks Christmas by referencing a religious service that day for the recruits from “Chaplin Charlie and his magic show.” During the film’s climax, the first time in which the audience gets a clear look at a live North Vietnamese soldier, it turns out that (surprise) she’s a young female North Vietnamese sniper who prays after being badly wounded by Matthew Modine’s formerly sardonic above-it-all soldier-journalist.
In contrast, as Max Boot wrote at Commentary, there are no redeeming Iraqi characters shown in the film, with the possible exception of a handful of Muslim interpreters working with the troops. The civilians are duplicitous, ready to sell out the Americans at a moment’s notice, terrified of the local neighborhood Al-Qeada enforcers, one who uses an unspeakable method to ensure loyalty and the omertà from the hapless local civilians.
When we’re first introduced to Mustafa, Kyle’s Syrian counterpart, he’s lying prone, lining up a shot. As with many real-life Islamic terrorists, he’s perfectly happy wearing western-made 21st century consumer goods and their logos, even as he’s bent on destroying the culture that makes them possible. The camera pans from his feet to his head, looking down the scope of his rifle, lining up his next potential kill. In a nice directorial touch from Eastwood, the camera glides by Mustafa’s Nike sneakers.
And of course, Hollywood has its own omertà. As Daniel Greenfield writes on “The Hollywood Jihad Against American Sniper,” at his Sultan Knish blog, “The Iraq War already had an official narrative in Hollywood. It was bad and wrong:”
Its veterans were crippled, dysfunctional and dangerous. Before American Sniper, Warner Brothers had gone with anti-war flicks like Body of Lies and In the Valley of Elah. It had lost a fortune on Body of Lies; but losing money had never stopped Hollywood from making anti-war movies that no one wanted to watch.
Even the Hurt Locker had opened with a quote from leftist terrorist supporter Chris Hedges.
An Iraq War movie was supposed to be an anti-war movie. There was no other way to tell the story. Spielberg’s own interest in American Sniper was focused on “humanizing” the other side. When he left and Clint Eastwood, coming off a series of failed films, took the helm, it was assumed that American Sniper would briefly show up in theaters and then go off to die quietly in what was left of the DVD aisle.
And then American Sniper broke box office records that had been set by blockbusters like Avatar, Passion and Hangover Part II by refusing to demonize American soldiers or to spin conspiracy tales about the war. Instead of pandering to coastal progressives, it aimed at the patriotic heartland.
In a sentence you no longer expected to hear from a Hollywood exec, the Warner Brothers distribution chief said, “This is about patriotism and all the things people say the country is lacking these days.”
Though as Sonny Bunch added at the Washington Free Beacon, “Of all the arguments that have taken place about American Sniper, the supposition that it is some sort of rah-rah-war-is-fun-the-GOP-is-great flick is the oddest.” If it wasn’t for Israel, I’d be far more inclined to sign onboard with Rand Paul’s so-called “To Hell With Them” doctrine when it comes to the Middle East, given what Glenn Reynolds and Breitbart London’s Milo Yiannopoulos call Islam’s tarnished brand, which American Sniper does little to polish, much to the Hollywood street’s seething rage and anger.
But I think I understand a bit better why men volunteer to fight for America after seeing American Sniper.
Orwell apparently never said “We sleep safely in our beds because rough men with guns stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would harm us.” But given his excoriating take on pacifism during World War II, he’d very likely agree with that statement, which, in retrospect, makes a nice summation of one of the many themes that American Sniper ‘s well-crafted script explores. It’s a topic that hasn’t been properly broached by Hollywood in a very long time.
And given how much the left hates this movie, and the uniquely American culture whose story is finally told in an approving fashion by a master director, it may be quite some time before effete Hollywood deigns to get its hands dirty with such a topic on the big screen again.
All the more reason to see this film while it’s still in the movie theater.
After 40 years of Hollywood counterpropaganda telling us war is necessarily corrupting and malign, its ablest practitioners thugs, loons or victims, “American Sniper” nobly presents the case for the other side…Mapping the interior landscape of a damaged soul is something books do better than movies, but in Cooper’s recoils from sudden noises, in his slumping at a hometown bar when his wife doesn’t even know he’s back in the country and in his staring at the floor when thanked for his prowess, we learn much about the price warriors pay. Cowboys, adventurers, joyriders — these are exactly what our best fighting men are not. They suffer merely to be alive, when so many brothers lie in boxes draped with flags. “American Sniper” does honor to them.
—“‘American Sniper’ is the year’s most extraordinary film,” Kyle Smith, the New York Post.
And from John Nolte at Big Hollywood, “Media Hoax Claims ‘American Sniper’ Inspired Anti-Muslim Threats.” But hey, doesn’t everything?