Yes, I saw American Sniper. I didn’t want to at first because it is essentially about everything I stand against, namely: violence, violence disguised as patriotism, sexism bred by violence, racism bred by violence, and war. Another part of me didn’t want to see it because of the outpouring of ignorant support that followed the movie and bathed the late Chris Kyle in a hero’s infamy. I had very strong doubts about whether there was anything heroic about Chris Kyle or his life and career as a sniper, and I didn’t want to align myself by association (the association of having seen the movie) with such an ignorant stance.
But I ended up seeing it anyway because I realized I couldn’t argue against the movie, or the mindset it seems to perpetuate – if not directly encourage – if I didn’t see the movie myself and know exactly what I was arguing against. The movie was “good” in a Hollywood way – meaning, I was never bored. It was awful in almost every other respect. Many people have written more well-informed and articulate articles than I will about this movie, and they have touched on the many good reasons there are to hate this movie and its inaccurate, more-humane-than-reality portrayal of a man who, from what I can gather, was a black and white thinker and nothing more.
In the movie, Bradley Cooper portrays a man who does see gray areas, who does struggle, at least a little bit, not only with his actions but with their consequences. Bradley Cooper is a great actor, but based on what I’ve heard and read from other, trusted sources about Chris Kyle’s life and thought as described in his memoir, Cooper got the character of Kyle wrong. Cooper allows far too much gray to seep into a strictly black and white paradigm. This seeming inaccuracy, combined with the respect I have for Bradley Cooper as a professional, made it difficult for me to distance myself from the character and dislike him entirely, as I was prepared to do from the outset. Perhaps that’s a good thing, because it did allow me to open up my mind and concede (not for the first time in my life) that war is not a black and white thing, no matter what anyone says about it, no matter how black and white its soldiers’ values might be. This fact doesn’t change my staunch pacifism, but it does help me see the gray, and as someone who believes that almost nothing in this world is black and white, an ability to see the gray is very important to me.
There were two major ways in which the movie impacted me after I left the theater.
First, I was left with an itching suspicion that the real-life Chris Kyle, as humane as Cooper tried to make him appear, lacked any degree of critical thought in his convictions and motivations. Some of the questions asked of the character Kyle in the movie – the questions you can tell are supposed to be the “hard-hitting” ones – are answered with such vague simplicity, such automatic and embarrassing machismo, that I couldn’t help but suspect that, as much as Cooper may have gotten wrong in his portrayal, the absolute absence of critical thought in Chris Kyle’s psyche was something he got right. In the numerous articles I’ve read about this movie, about Chris Kyle as a person, and about Chris Kyle’s memoir, the one ringing consistency is that Chris Kyle’s belief system left no room for deep and critical thought or analysis. The biggest problem with a worldview that is black and white is that the people I’ve known in my life who ascribe to such a rigid belief system are people who not only seem incapable of critical thought but actually actively resist what they seem to view as an immoral temptation to examine a given situation beyond its surface. And this appears to be the problem Chris Kyle had. Chris Kyle was clearly and without question a dutiful, honorable* soldier.
Second, I walked away from the theater recognizing the tendency toward violence that violence-centered movies and other media bring out in me. There’s a reason I stay away from movies and media like this for the most part. Killing, fighting, and insulting others is not only a practice that is normalized by media such as this; it is encouraged. And that’s how I found myself, about halfway through the movie, wishing I had my own sniper rifle so I could take aim and shoot the fellow moviegoer on the front row who kept pulling out his or her phone, the bright light irritatingly drawing my eye and my attention away from the movie. Some might dismiss that thought as harmless, a mere snipering joke in the context of the movie; no harm done. For me, however, that kind of thought terrifies me. Only because I had been watching a guy lie on rooftops and shoot the enemy for over an hour – and getting caught up in the emotion of hoping he succeeded in killing his targets – did I have a thought like that. So, yeah, okay. Maybe it’s nothing to worry about. On a given day, I don’t wish I could shoot with sniper rifles all the people who annoy me. And, of course, even in the movie theater, I didn’t have a sniper rifle, and it’s not like I got up out of my seat and went down to the front of the theater to dispense some civilian justice. But what scares me is that, no matter how unrealistic the scenario might have been, the thought and desire were there in my mind, however jokingly, after only an hour of watching someone shoot people from rooftops. That bothers me a great deal. And it should bother you too. And what scares me even more is that such a thought doesn’t bother any of the people who have raised this movie and, with it, Chris Kyle, to an undeserved pedestal.
Am I glad I saw American Sniper? Yes. Am I glad the movie was made to begin with? No. Especially considering the cultural climate this movie was released into: Our country is embroiled in a very heated political struggle right now over gun control laws, so a movie like this – one whose message encourages violence under the guise of protection – is the worst possible ammunition (no pun intended) for the pro-gun faction.
A movie like American Sniper isn’t going to aid in moving our country in the peaceful direction it ought to go.