Confession. I love cowboy movies. American Sniper is a kind of cowboy movie set in Iraq. The climax of the movie is reached when Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), a real American hero from Texas who had the most sniper kills (160) of any American service man in the history of U.S. wars, faces off in a High Noon type of battle with the Legend from the other side, an insurgent top marksman who can kill his target a half mile away, equal to the best that America deployed. But American snipers proved to be better. In real history, Marine Staff Sgt. Steve Reichert using his .50 BMG Barrett rifle to hit and kill an insurgent machine gunner slightly more than a mile away. Chris Kyle does the same in the climax of the film.
In the movie, the .50 BMG Barrett rifle is as important a character in Chris Kyle’s hands as any of the human characters in the movie. His baseball cap turned backwards on his head that replaced the Stetson of his cowboy days acts as a secondary inanimate character that helps his deadly aim that is sharpened when the targets breathe. Chris Kyle proves that he has that rare eagle eye and the quiet intensity to be a true hero. This is a gift, as his father tells him when he was a young boy hunting with his dad. His father also taught him a crucial lesson repeated in numerous war films. Never leave your rifle in the dirt. The message never needed to be repeated in the movie. As close as he becomes with his buddies in his Naval Seal squad, the rifle is Kyle’s best friend and those scenes of him alone with his rifle offer some of the most loving scenes in the movie. Over and over again, the camera zooms in on Kyle’s finger as he begins to squeeze the trigger.
However real Kyle’s actual achievements were, the construction of an expert marksman from the other side is a composite and somewhat of an artifact for the movie. Not that the insurgents in Iraq lacked snipers. They had plenty. And like the master sniper on the other side, they slipped back into civilian life making them very difficult to take out. But without the expertise and record of the marksman on the other side, how would the movie be able to reach its High Noon climax? Creating a composite enemy sniper, however, was not the only artistic license taken by the movie.
In an opening scene, Kyle and his new wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), watch on television as the Twin Towers are hit by two hijacked planes. The first tower implodes. It is 11 September 2001. Kyle is compelled to defend his country from the savages. In 2003 he is deployed to Iraq. You will never learn from the movie that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq has nothing to do with Al Qaeda and its terrorist attack against Americans on their own soil in 2001. The link between 9/11 and Iraq was a fabrication of Bush’s White House, including the false information at the time that the Al Qaeda terrorist, Abu Mu’sab al-Zarqawi, was in Iraq in 2003. Only after the American military pro-consul in Iraq dissolved both the civil service and the Iraqi army dominated by Sunnis, did a Sunni insurgency against both Shi’ites and the American occupation grow in Iraq. Zarqawi, an al-Qaeda semi-autonomous chieftain who looms so large in the film plot, moves his base from Afghanistan to Iraq in 2004.
In American Sniper, Zarqawi became the main target of the Navy seal team. I do not know whether the director intentionally made the expert insurgent marksman an Zarqawi look-alike, or whether the confusion left with me whether Zarqawi was the expert insurgent marksman or the marksman was simply someone deployed by Zarqawi was peculiar to me or experienced by other members of the audience. In any case, in this movie, historical accuracy is not an overriding requirement. Films, after all, are allowed poetic license. And it certainly does not matter that Zarqawi was taken out by a bomb strike rather than snipers in 2006, possibly because his position was betrayed to the Americans through an al-Qaeda leak to rid themselves of an uncontrollable psychopath. After all, it is just a movie.
Further, Zarqawi was a terrorist monster who beheaded his American captive, Nick Berg. He was also the man who planned the bombing of the Canal Hotel that held the UN headquarters in Iraq and that killed Sergio Vieira de Mello, the High Representative of the UN Secretary-General to Iraq. But I am unconvinced from the evidence of George Tenet’s (former Director of the CIA) contention in his 2007 memoirs that Zarqawi traveled to Iraq just after the Americans invaded in March 2003.
The movie reinforces a fraudulent picture, confirmed by a 2006 Senate Report that an ill-informed Colin Powell, then U.S. Secretary of State, presented at the UN to justify America’s invasion of Iraq, for Zarqawi was not in league with Saddam Hussein.
Iraq today harbors a deadly terrorist network headed by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda lieutenants. When our coalition ousted the Taliban, the Zarqawi network helped establish another poison and explosive training center camp. And this camp is located in northeastern Iraq. He traveled to Baghdad in May 2002 for medical treatment, staying in the capital of Iraq for two months while he recuperated to fight another day. During this stay, nearly two dozen extremists converged on Baghdad and established a base of operations there. These Al Qaeda affiliates, based in Baghdad, now coordinate the movement of people, money and supplies into and throughout Iraq for his network, and they’ve now been operating freely in the capital for more than eight months. We asked a friendly security service to approach Baghdad about extraditing Zarqawi and providing information about him and his close associates. This service contacted Iraqi officials twice, and we passed details that should have made it easy to find Zarqawi. The network remains in Baghdad.
Thus, bio-pics can mirror actual history in putting forth false information about history. So cowboy movies masquerading as bio-pics of actual historical figures can pose unique difficulties. This is a movie about an American battle hero. So it is somewhat surprising to juxtapose the increasing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as the film progresses. No old time cowboy flick or traditional war film would have allowed the intrusion of such weakness in a heroic figure. For, after all, the key characteristic of a sniper is not to hesitate but always remain steady and confident.
Though we are left unsure whether the PTSD left Chris Kyle at the end of his fourth tour of duty as a washed-up has-been or whether he remained as the legend of old, the seesawing back and forth between the domestic scenes and the increasing evidence of his PTSD as it developed in concert with the camaraderie of men at war, certainly enhanced the power of the film. It is tense. It is taught. It is tight. But the domestic scenes serve as foils rather than as a complementary drama of the emotional tensions between husband and wife and he becomes increasingly remote.
The movie is also as narrow-minded and singularly focused as the site of Chris Kyle’s rifle. The wider political context is only hinted at in the reading of a letter at the funeral of one of his team’s best marksmen, a letter that Chris Kyle dismisses as a sign that his fellow-marksman signed his own personal death warrant. With his doubts, according to Kyle, he had already doomed himself to death. When his own brother is being deployed back to the United States and briefly expresses his hatred for Iraq and the war, Chris Kyle is left befuddled. So the rationale of war may be lost in the dust storms of the politicians, nevertheless, the aim of the individual soldier remains tried and true.
There are two very powerful scenes in the movie, the first of which I saw in a trailer advertising the film before I saw the film last night. That scene set up the tension between killing a child soldier and the need to protect one’s own. This is repeated in a different way and in an even more tension-ridden scene later in the film, but instead of exploring the inner conflict, the movie escapes by a contingent stroke. This is a lost opportunity. Because child soldiers are a deadly part of contemporary terrorism. Just yesterday, before I saw the movie, the most radical of the Islamicists, Islamic State, distributed a new video ‘starring’ a ten year-old boy in a commando uniform executing two captives in Kazakhstan by shooting each in the head.
Although many terrorists are indeed savages, and I believe Zarqawi was among them, the main insurgency had a legitimate beef with the Americans. You would never know that from watching the movie. At the same time, Chris Kyle is portrayed as both resolute and modest, committed but not overbearing, sincere and honest, a man determined to fulfill his destiny as a sheep dog protecting his sheep from marauding wolves. He is unquestionably a patriot and America’s Hercules. It should be no surprise that the film premiered first on what Americans call Veterans Day and Canadians call Remembrance Day on 11 November 2014.
Bradley Cooper is superb in the role. In the film, our hero makes it clear that he regards all the insurgents as savages and makes no distinction among them. Evidently in his autobiography, Chris Kyle said he took joy in his killing, but this point is not reflected in the movie where he is revealed as conflicted in some situations. That at least stands him in sharp contrast to the butcher on the other side who uses a drill on a small boy to punish the boy’s father for informing on the insurgents.
The sound track enhances the movie. Instead of music, we hear the grinding and crunching of the tracks of tanks and armoured personnel carriers, the shots and explosions in the background. Later in the film, as Chris Kyle is portrayed at home watching a blank TV screen, he does not hear his children. He does not hear his wife. All he hears are the sounds of war. It is gripping.
Is it true that if one is to control and utilize coercive force, one has to be cool and calculating, singularly focused on an enemy drawn as black and your own side is painted white? Mushy liberals always second-guessing are useless in war. Or so the belief goes. I do not grant a word of truth to it. But I do agree with the Directors Guild of America in granting Clint Eastwood the award as outstanding director.