I Sing of Arms and the Man

Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper tells the story of Navy Seal Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in American military history with 160 confirmed kills. The film opens in Fallujah with Kyle confronting what will be his first two kills, a woman and a young boy who advance with a grenade toward a column of Marines. Kyle’s juvenile Marine escort states the obvious: “If you’re wrong, they’ll send your ass to Leavenworth.” Kyle shoots the boy and then the woman when she picks up his dropped grenade and attempts to throw it.

Bradley Cooper’s portrayal of Kyle here and throughout the film might be called the “inward turn.” Kyle isn’t overwhelmed by the event, but we sense that it is merely the first of many dramatic killings whose troubled imprint on Kyle will emerge in due course. After their deaths, he breathes in, closes his eyes, and then prepares for the next shot.

And so the audience must wonder: is this the mark of the sniper in action? He is not bloodthirsty, nor awed by his kills, but merely businesslike and methodical. But there’s something more: might it also be the mark of an American soldier, a Texas cowboy, an Evangelical Christian–the film underscores all three elements–who believes he possesses clarity and purpose even amid the horrors of war?

Kyle, the film discloses, quickly earns the title “Legend” for his pinpoint shooting acumen. Marines in the 2004 battle of Fallujah believed that the angel of death was on their side, with Kyle above them “banging on the long gun.” Readers of Kyle’s autobiography, which has sold over a million copies, know that Kyle found himself in war, in dealing death.

He completed four tours of duty in Iraq, spending nearly 1,000 days fighting, and as the film painfully details, doing so at tremendous cost to his sanity and his family.

The film, in my judgment, refrains from glorifying Kyle or the Iraq War itself, but depicts his steadfastness to the job he is given. That isn’t to say we aren’t drawn to Cooper’s Kyle. Character is story, and we are given here an American soldier who moves us with his refusal to quit, with his belief that his service saves the lives of his comrades. We don’t doubt that that is so; but such a film, and of course its title, will raise questions. Is being an unseen attacker—a sniper—somehow not the height of valor in war?

By the same token, director Eastwood does not slight Kyle or the war in which he fought. American Sniper refrains from trafficking in stereotypes—either of a rogue killer or of wayward units commanded by bad leaders.

Eastwood is a storyteller, and he has an amazing story to work with here. The life of Chris Kyle is enough; politics is shoved to the side. A war-wearied nation will surely be grateful for that as it flocks to this film.

The most striking evidence of Kyle’s character is his response to the death of fellow Seal and close friend, Marc Lee (played by Luke Grimes). We know that Lee is troubled about the war. Unlike Kyle, he no longer sees the point of the fight. In one scene, he sees Kyle’s small Bible and asks him “You got a God?” Lee isn’t being snide; he is reaching out to try to find the meaning he doesn’t have. Kyle responds very directly, “We’re here because there’s evil here.”

Where Lee is reflective, Kyle is transparently not. Are we to find Kyle lacking for failing to ponder why his continued sacrificial service is needed year after year? Why doesn’t the endlessness of the conflict strike him? In other words, how is it that the shifting enemies he faces were even better fighters when he left in 2008 (as the real Kyle noted in his autobiography)? We know, but this character seems not to, that something in America’s war effort went wrong, badly so.

Alternatively, are we to understand that Kyle’s way is the one that’s necessary to be an effective participant in any war? Perhaps with Lee and Kyle, we face the irreconcilable truths that exist in any war. These are even more pronounced in the campaigns waged by democratic countries that are awash in debate, ensuring that the lines separating trust, obedience, and dissent aren’t always clear. We struggle with knowing whom we should give ourselves to. Lee and Kyle represent that for us.

A key moment arrives when Lee’s mother reads, at his funeral, from a poignant letter he sent her a few weeks before his death in combat:

Glory is something men chase, and others find themselves stumbling upon not expecting to find it. Either way, it is a noble gesture that one finds bestowed upon them. My question is when does glory fade away and become the wrongful crusade or an unjustified means which consumes one completely. I’ve seen war and I’ve seen death . . .

Her grief-choked voice breaks off as the rifle salute commences. Kyle’s wife, Taya (played by Sienna Miller), who has previously told him that when his war ends, he will have to “find a way back to us,” later uses Lee’s statement to confront her husband. She wants to know what he thought of it. His response is terse but authentic: “He died in an ambush, but that letter killed him, not the ambush. He let go.”

Lee had become more dangerous to himself than to the enemy. He was indulging—almost selfishly we sense from Kyle’s response—in remorse. His war had ended; he stayed too long.

But the things discussed in that posthumously read letter, somewhere on the road of glory, its demise, and the events of war consuming and destroying the warrior, indicate the choice that Kyle himself must make. His war, as his wife said, must end. Otherwise, as Lee told him, he will lose sight of everything else.

Kyle never understood himself to be pursuing glory, hence his dismissive-sounding response. According to his own assessment, Kyle found immense value in his work. He killed bad guys and protected American soldiers. He returned to the fight because it wasn’t finished. In that sense, Lee’s reflections on glory, on a war that seemed to have gone off course, were beside the point. But Kyle, though he may not have been consumed with glory, was still almost consumed by the war. We might also wonder if Kyle had not pursued glory. The decorated sniper disputed his official number of kills—he said it was more like 250. Does not Kyle wear his glory openly when he instructs us on his actual kills? Why wasn’t 160 enough? Both figures are a heap of death dealt to America’s enemies.

When to let go? Not yet—the U.S. military flies its ace sniper back into Iraq to fight again. His final kill in the film is his nemesis Mustafa, a Syrian Olympic team sniper. The shot made at over 2,100 yards ends Kyle’s war. He knows it immediately.

In Texas, he does find his way home. The real Chris Kyle struggled mightily in this regard but by all accounts, he found something he could call peace, and he loved his wife and children. He undoubtedly struggled with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, with alcohol, and violence (in his memoir he admits to several booze-fueled bar brawls). I’d like to believe that Kyle did in fact deck Jesse Ventura at a California bar, but a court, apparently, found otherwise and awarded the former Minnesota governor $1.8 million dollars in a defamation suit against Kyle’s widow. Kyle, it seems, may have told some stories.

After the war-fighting scenes end, the movie loses steam because it relegates Kyle’s recovery to a quick resolution sequence. It shows in less than 10 minutes what must have been an incredible road back for the rifleman. Much of that road was paved by assisting other soldiers in healing from their many wounds. In the end—and this too is barely present in the movie—Kyle’s service finally killed him: A troubled former Marine, whom he was trying to help, shot Kyle and another friend at a gun range.

The love between Kyle and his wife is evident. We get that in the film, but we also don’t get enough of her struggle and her own development. I suspect most Americans will look beyond this shortcoming. Their love holds. Kyle, the American warrior, like all good warriors, as Ulysses told us, wants to build a home.

Despite Eastwood’s attempt to make a film that is above the once-rancid debate about the Iraq War, American Sniper could be a bridge for many Americans back to a war they deliberately forgot. In a nation strongly divided, it hardly needs to be said, there is a strong consensus of affirmation for the military. We know that the Iraq War failed, and as much as the blame can be found in the unreachable objectives of Bush’s own war for democracy, it also rests with many of us, who were too quick to approve the endeavor and then separated along harshly opposed lines as the war came apart.

To see Kyle’s portrayal in this film is a vivid reminder of those on whom the war fell, who suffered tremendously as they poured themselves into the fight. America’s attitude toward the war will likely evolve with time into a more positive appraisal. If so, American Sniper may contribute to this reflection as the signature cinematic treatment of the Iraq War and the film that endures in the nation’s mind.