‘American Sniper’ Shot me in the Heart and Gut

Last night we went to see the new Bradley Cooper film ‘American Sniper’. As we crunched our way across the quiet, icy parking lot towards the cinema I was mildly aware of an ambient discomfort with going to see a film depicting real-life, present day war. By halfway through the opening scene, my wife was in tears and I was feeling an overwhelming sense of ignorance. The chomping sound of my popcorn stood out for me as a pitiful marker of disassociation from reality. I questioned my decision to be ‘entertained’ by a dramatisation of still unfolding, real world tragedy.

This new form of entertainment – action movie depictions of current, violent political events – is not something I enjoy. There is no ‘joy’ in watching people suffer and die. And yet, I am drawn to these films.

It is as if my curiosity for ‘what’s happening out there’ can be indulged, while keeping the rest of me at a safe distance. I get to quench my thirst for engagement in the world without risking anything, save maybe $20 and a night out.

In some sense, my interest in the recent youth rebellion/dystopian films (Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, etc) comes from the same place. A desire to feel part of the revolution without having to actually DO anything (except chomp popcorn). With these kinds of films, my inaction is not so confronting though. They are fiction and so easy to write off as ‘entertainment’.

With films like American Sniper and Zero Dark Thirty, this is not as easy to do.

My lack of strength and vulnerability around this does not escape me. In fact, it actually leaves me feeling a bit hollow inside. But there it is.

As we sat watching the film, I knew that for my British born wife, the extreme American nationalism behind each bullet that exploded from Cooper’s character Chris Kyle’s rifle, was even more unsettling for her than it was for me. As the ‘kill count’ tallied like in a video game, I watched with embarrassing disdain the screenwriters meek attempt to balance this with Kyle’s supposed focus on ‘lives saved’. They could have just as easily left it out and not shifted the perspective of the film.

What blew my mind is how strongly the film depicted the ‘enemy’ as evil and the US military as ‘good’. It was a modern day Cowboys and Indians¬†(in fact, Chris Kyle WAS literally a cowboy before he became Navy Seal). In the closing scene of the film, you see Kyle leave home with a man holding a sombre look on his face. The screen fades to black and in one line reads the text ‘Chris Kyle was killed by a veteran he was trying to help.’

From there, through the closing credits, you watch footage from the actual Chris Kyle’s military funeral procession through Texas. Thousands of patriots line the streets with flags and signs praising ‘The Legend’ and his 160 confirmed kills, the most in US military history.

Not for a moment does the film visit the irony that The Legend was himself taken by a bullet.

Not for a moment does the film visit the irony that The Legend was killed by a U.S. solider.

Not for a moment does the film visit the irony that despite spending years overseas taking the lives of men, women and children, The Legend was taken from his own wife and children in his home state.

Instead, the final image is of the actual Chris Kyle stood like Rambo, draped in two sachets of bullets, and smiling with pride.

Do I doubt that Chris Kyle’s sharp-shooting was instrumental in saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of US soldiers? Not at all.
Do I doubt that Chris Kyle’s kills directly thwarted terrorist attacks by the people he destroyed? Not at all.
Do I have the balls to even face these questions on the ground in a war zone as opposed to pontification? Absolutely not.
Does this make my consideration relatively irrelevant? I’m not so sure.
In most obvious light, my choice to visit the true tragedies of the world through dissociative ‘entertainment’ may represent a lack of courage and an absence of impact. My fear of personal loss is certainly a contributing factor.
In less obvious light though, I wonder if my choice to stand on the sideline and watch armed with opinions instead of being on the field carrying explosives is a statement in itself.
In 1999 I withdrew my place in the USAF ROTC program at the last minute. I couldn’t stomach the idea that one day I may have had to kill people over what was essentially a misunderstanding. I couldn’t justify murder, even under the powerful spell of nationalism.
I do not believe going to see films like American Sniper means that I ‘support’ their ideology. These films emotionally engage me in the current and active story of the world. Maybe this engagement is what I need to stop standing there armed with opinions and to start speaking them.
Speaking is not something I, or anyone, did after the film. The theatre emptied in the same awkward silence that I remember during the closing credits of Zero Dark Thirty.
The crunch of the ice in the parking lot was even louder on the way back to the car. The discomfort was no longer ambient. It was in my hands and on the steering wheel now. I just watched it though, knowing this is what Kyle must have felt while holding the trigger of his rifle. And for a moment at least, despite wishing his killing legacy had not such an echo of unquestioned justification, I loved Chris Kyle for being human.