Movie review: American Sniper

Jan 30, 2015 by

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I’ve now watched two lousy Academy Award-nominated films in a row. But American Sniper is infinitely worse than Foxcatcher. Foxcatcher at least has its heart in the right place. It is trying in its flawed way to make the world a better place. American Sniper, on the other hand, can only make the world a worse place.


Bradley Cooper plays sniper Chris Kyle in American Sniper.

Indeed, watching it was utterly soul-draining and the biggest sacrifice of my life as a film critic. Not even my very low expectations could do justice to this travesty. What was Clint Eastwood thinking? He has made so many marvelous films, including films which humanize “the enemy” and challenge the myth of redemptive violence. Why this?

You all know what American Sniper is about: In this true story, Bradley Cooper plays Chris Kyle, an American sniper in Iraq (following the American invasion, and subsequent occupation, of Iraq in 2003) who became a great hero because he was able to kill, from his rooftop perch, more than 160 people (“terrorists”), including a Syrian sniper with a reputation of his own and women and children who were throwing bombs at American invaders.

I had heard enough positive things about the way Kyle’s family drama was depicted that I thought the film would at least be worth watching. I thought I would see the toll that being a soldier takes on the families back home and on life after Iraq. Not so much. Yes, what it showed was a heck of a lot more interesting and entertaining than all the things that happened in Iraq. And it did describe the way Kyle had lost some of his humanity in Iraq. But relatively speaking, it showed precious little of the family drama. American Sniper is foremost about Kyle’s experiences in Iraq (though having his wife on the phone while he’s being shot at is a nice touch).

As for Iraq? One of the film’s few glowing moments comes when a fellow soldier named Mark starts to question why the Americans are in Iraq at all. Kyle responds to this evident weakness by pointing out that they are not there just to protect “this piece of dirt” but to protect the people in San Diego and New York, because that’s where these “terrorists” would be going if it were not for soldiers like Kyle. Yeah, I get that. Can you imagine what it might be like for enemies from across the ocean to come into your cities and towns and start shooting at you, banging down your doors and shoving a rifle in your children’s faces? Surely Kyle’s right: Only “evil savages” (his words) would think of doing such a thing. Oh. Wait a minute. . . . Does no one see the irony there?

I am baffled by how such a film could become such an enormous blockbuster, not to mention be critically acclaimed and get the Oscar nomination for Best Picture.

Dan Fellman, the domestic distribution chief at Warner Bros., says American Sniper is so popular because it “deals with family, with patriotism and it recognizes a hero. Regardless of anything that’s come out on the negative side, the reaction from the public is so positive and this is one movie they have really supported.”

Why? For me, the film wasn’t even entertaining — it was horrific from beginning to end. Is it because people think the story of Chris Kyle somehow justifies everything the U.S. military has been doing in Iraq? After decades of feeling beaten up by global anti-Americanism, especially after the invasion of Iraq and its subsequent scandals, does American Sniper tell Americans that it was OK? They can be proud of their heroes, like Kyle, who have made the world a safer place by killing little kids who are trying to tell the invaders to go home?

The most appalling flaw in American Sniper is that there is virtually no attempt to humanize the people of Iraq, people who have suffered so much for so long. Instead, the message is that if “it” is wearing a cloth head covering, “it” is an evil savage that must be killed for the world to be safe. Surely the result is that in many quarters of the world, American Sniper, with its depiction of American soldiers invading the homes of Iraqi people and treating them like criminals, will only fuel hatred toward the American military machine.

I won’t even get into the fact that 9/11 is shown on TV not long before Kyle is shown being deployed to Iraq to “do his job,” as if there’s some link between 9/11 and Iraq. The reason those so-called terrorists were there for Kyle to shoot (and the reason the IS is there now) is exactly because Americans invaded and occupied Iraq for their own interests, among countless other crimes they committed in the Middle East. That’s what this film should have been about.

I’ve wasted enough time talking about a film that should never have been made. American Sniper gets zero stars. My mug is so far down, it’s scraping the dirt.

Vic Thiessen lives in Winnipeg, Man., and writes here, where this blog post originally appeared.

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  • Berry Friesen

    ” As if there’s some link between 9/11 and Iraq?”. Come on, Vic, there absolutely was (and is) a link. We all know by now that rationality is the smaller part of the process by which we come to our beliefs. So just because it was a lie does not alter the truth of the matter in telling the story of our time in history.

    And the link between 9/11 and the Western worldview remains alive and well today, convincing most people against much evidence that Islam is a threat to our way of life. Although 9/11 itself is largely a lie, it remains “true” in the very same way that the “link between 9/11 and Iraq” remains true.

    • PGregory Springer

      Our invasion of Iraq was a fiasco and a lie from start to finish and no amount of revisionism by you or Eastwood will ever change that. And remember, before we invaded Iraq, Christianity was practiced there freely. No more.

      • Berry Friesen

        Greg, of course Iraq had nothing to do with planning or carrying out 9/11. You and I don’t approve; you and I say the claims of a link were mistaken. Yet all such objections are pointless as historical analysis. The empire operates through deception and violence, and if most people believe its lies, then everything proceeds according to plan and the entire project will be judged a success. So the empire gives us a false account of 9/11, most people believed it, and out of that belief emerged the sense within the American people that an invasion of Iraq was legitimate. That’s history.

        I criticized Vic’s remark because it faults the movie for perpetuating a falsehood. But we must stop that kind of analysis in which we pretend to be smarter and more competent than the empire’s leaders. They are smarter than we are and often more competent.

        Instead of criticizing them as stupid or incompetent, let’s recognize how totally cynical they are and how fully they have embraced deceit as standard operating procedure. Only then do we have a prayer of understanding what a pariah the empire is and what desperate straits we are in.

  • Chris Hipsher

    We need a Mennonite movie to retell this story showing the negatives of war and the humanity of those we invaded. We are the terrorists. The positives of peacemaking must be told. Are there Mennonite filmmakers?
    On Twitter @cjhipsher

  • Phil Schroeder

    I am more disappointed in this review than the movie itself. I went out of curiosity and what I saw was not what I expected. Rather than a God and country we’re good and you’re bad war movie, which is what I feared, I saw a movie that portrayed the humanity many of the Iraqi people as well as the ones devoted to battle. I saw the heartache of the loss of life, both American and Iraqi, the mental torment of what war does to the soldiers, and finally the strain that families face as their loved ones come home.
    Vic’s comment on the suggested link between 9-11 and the Iraqi war was a little of base well. Chris Kyle is shown watching the towers being attacked on television and deciding that he would enlist in the military. I would assume the Navy had something to do with where he was deployed to. It could have just as easily have been to Afghanistan. I did not notice any statement that because of 9-11 we’re sending you to Iraq.
    Being published in a church newspaper I find it hard to believe that the writer failed to warn the readers about the foul language and the veiled coverage of Kyle’s sex life both before and after his marriage. This was likely an accurate portrayal of these aspects of his life but readers should be aware of both. That being said, I was moved by the movie in ways that I did not expect and I believe that Clint Eastwood did an incredible job of directing a movie that portrays a part of our history that many of us dislike and wish would not have happened.

  • Dale Welty

    I wonder how Mennonites would make a movie about the destruction of Jericho including all men, women and children except for Rahab and her family? Or Jesus riding on his white horse in Rev. 19:11-18? Dale Welty