It’s a telling trend in all media, but most often in film, to slap the word “American” as a adjective in a title, usually if they can’t think of anything better. Sometimes this is justified (there is, after all, la deceivingly-pleasant flower called the American Beauty in existence) and sometimes it’s because it’s the easiest way to tap into money-making jingoism. Granted the title discussion extends first to the book it adapted, released in 2010. Bradley Cooper, who stars in last weekends’ box-office juggernaut American Sniper, seems to have caught on to the above factoid, having already starred American Hustle (which anyone with knowledge will tell you was a completely arbitrary title made up after the film was made) and is also attached to Red-Blooded American (as Lance Armstrong) and American Blood.
Cooper portrays Chris Kyle, known as the most prolific sniper in military history and known as “The Legend” among his peers. His passion got the movie made (he was the one to buy the film rights) and he is universally praised as phenomenal in the lead role. The adaptation of his memoir has ignited the tender and sensitive lines of reds and blues. But it is a deeper discussion of how we portray heroes and what we deem acceptable when adapting a real life figure.
Clint Eastwood can still make a decent film but he makes some deliberate story and filmmaking choices that feel out of place in a film ostensibly about the examination of war on the human psyche. It idealizes and conflates much of the process of Kyle’s development. For one thing, Kyle’s recruitment into the military is grossly simplified as detailed over in a fact-check piece at EW. Another is combining various enemy snipers into Mustafa, a black-clad super-sniper with whom Kyle can duel for much of the screentime and a “Big Bad” for a film that didn’t need one and, in fact, would have been far more powerful without.
Is it propaganda?
The film, while existing as its own entity, does some interesting things to Kyle’s story that both add and detract. I don’t think Eastwood made a partisan film but I think it’s interesting the conversation that has emerged. This is a constant in our shifting age: who are our heroes? What do we, explicitly and implicitly, value?
The screenwriter of the film, Jason Hall, recently expounded to TIME on the ongoing debate with some insightful comments on Kyle’s life, the challenges of adapting the book, and refuting certain critics.
“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.”
Perhaps it is the arguably-awkward fusion of action and drama, made especially clear by the sheer lack of context for the war Kyle was ordered to fight. By being myopic, it made reality exclusive to Kyle’s perception, a reductive practice. Maybe that reflects a bit of how Kyle was in reality. As described here by the screenwriter, he was arguably a cipher, keeping others at arm’s length. After his death was when conversations with Kyle’s wife Taya revealed the softer side that he kept hidden. He was dedicated to helping his fellow veterans and an animal lover.
The film is similar: it is glossed up in action machismo about a guy who was literally nicknamed “The Legend” due to his prolific killing. In the words of writer David Wong, “There are two ways to dehumanize someone: by dismissing them and idolizing them.” The film obviously had deeper intentions than that, but apparently not enough focus to actually get those themes across.
The ultimate irony of that thesis is I’m arguing that a better film would have been less commercial. More than just the mass audience, humanity itself loves simplified stories and easy answers, movies which hold our hand and tell us that what is happening is righteous. And that, my friends, brushes disturbingly close to propaganda.
It’s completely fine to be happy about living in America. We should all feel happy. And it shouldn’t even be a question that our soldiers deserve to be treated with the utmost respect. There absolutely is a sacrifice being made by choosing to become a soldier, a defender against those who threaten others. In a lot of cases, that choice was made inevitable by life circumstances and outside influence. We can be happy because of their sacrifice.
But to be proud of the fact that we Americans killed the most “insert ethnicity here” is a dangerous thought. Is that what we want to be known for? In America, pride seems to imply a smug sense of moral authority and superiority. Condemning the fact that one person, regardless of nationality or reason, killed at least 160 people, is NOT condemning the military or the strength it takes to make the sacrifice to join.
But that doesn’t mean we need to be happy or proud about those actions or the horribly demoralizing effects it had on Kyle and millions of citizens who suffered consequences And it also doesn’t mean that our “rights” were ever in danger in the Iraq War. If anything, our rights are more threatened today by the totalitarian policies our own government added in response to such a tragedy as 9/11.
It doesn’t help that Kyle was at best inaccurate and at the worst flat-out lying in parts of his book. Whether this was the result of executive or editorial meddling to add drama, as speculated in the former article or Kyle misconstruing the truth, we’ll never know (although the courts decided the latter, at the least by awarding $1.8 million in damages to Jesse Ventura about allegations Kyle made in the book and in interviews).
Why this debate matters
Being a soldier is a sacrifice no matter what. Not only is the threat of death always present when deployed, surviving war can bring physical disabilities and mental instability. We all know the old maxim: War is Hell. Yet, somehow we insist on being proud of Kyle’s high death toll. It is easy to let moral myopia seep in thousands of miles from the battlefield. But to the native population, is not a battlefield, but their home.
Once again, all soldiers deserve respect for the sacrifice they make for the country. But by virtue of having such stringent security measures, by using some extreme psychological tactics to inflame people, we create the very situation that calls for that security. It’s a paradox, but look at this quote from a recently-unabridged interview TIME did with Chris Kyle in 2011.
“You write about that first time as being quite—all these things are going through your mind. Does it ever become more routine?
I’m not over there looking at these people as people. I’m just over there trying to do a job, trying to keep my guys safe, and you just view these guys as the terrorists that they are. You see the actions that they do. And I call them savages in the book, but if you see the way these people act, you don’t know how any civilized person can do what they do. So you’re not really viewing them as a person. They’re out there, they’re bad people, and you just take them out and you don’t think twice about it.”
This is combat behavior and absolutely, pragmatically necessary in war. But to ask someone to take on that perspective, to ask them to give up their empathy, part of their humanity, that is the true cost of being in war. Here’s another quote from the same interview where Kyle says his extensive training as a Navy SEAL not only prepared him for war, but made me anticipate and expect it.
“When you sign up, you sign up because you want to go to war. Or at least the SEALS, we do. We don’t sign up to go be the best just so we can sit at home, walk around the bars and say, Hey, look at me, I’ve got a trident on. I’m a SEAL. We do it because we want to go to war.”
We should lament the fact that we are a species with institutionalized violence, right down to our very behavioral core. Overcoming that is a whole other matter, and obviously in the meantime, war and violence are not going away. We need people to make sacrifices so others may live in peace.
If we ignore ethics (and we’re Americans so of course we will) and look pragmatically, the big takeaway is that once again, hard-to-control, base human instincts, such as fear and real-world violence have been capitalized on yet again to the tune of over $100 million at the box office.
Oddly enough, a quote in a completely unrelated article encapsulates much of the issues I’ve been furiously throwing words at in this article. This quote is from a well-worth-your-time Hollywood Reporter article on a Scientology documentary premiering soon from documentarian auteur Alex Gibney. When looking at Scientology, he saw much of the same psychological blind spots touched on here, making it evident this is a cross-cultural, cross-institutional problem, central to human governance and leadership.
“You can see how abusive institutions get when they have a lot of power and money and when they become guided by a small group of people at the top, perhaps even one person,” he says. And then there’s a theme that resonates across any number of religions: “It’s really hard-wired into all of us, the psychology of wanting to find certainty in faith that allows you to do the most reprehensible things because you believe the ends justify the means.”
That to me is the real lesson: people like Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity make money not because they report the news or tell the truth. But because they scratch that itch in our reptilian brains that says “Yeah, we should bomb the fuck out of whatever colored people we can find!” It truly is entertainment presented as reality based on scratching that itch. We all want the easy answer. To accept it is weakness because there is no easy answer. Either every life matters or no lives matter and handing someone the keys to life and death costs someone dearly, no matter how skilled they are.
It’s sad that this take on Kyle’s story is what gets lost in translation .