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6 Deep Thoughts About 'American Sniper'

Jump into the discussion as we dig into the controversial hit movie and the reaction to it.

Bradley Cooper plays real-life SEAL Chris Kyle in 'American Sniper.'
Bradley Cooper plays real-life SEAL Chris Kyle in 'American Sniper.'
Warner Bros.

With a huge opening weekend, American Sniper is all over the place. It's been nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars as controversy swells with both critics and supporters very loudly offering their opinions and very loudly being offended by the other side. Regardless of whether you think it's the most important movie you'll ever see or nationalistic grandstanding or a glorified recruiting video, American Sniper is clearly worth talking about. So let's talk! Here are a few thoughts we had while watching the movie and a few reactions to the reactions. [SPOILERS AHEAD!]

#1. The Shift in Perspective Changes Everything

American Sniper was written in first person, which invites the reader to judge Chris Kyle as they go. The movie is a third-person narrative, which feels like it insulates Kyle from some of that judgment.

In the book, Kyle sometimes openly glories in the violence and even brags about how badass he is. For the most part, he tells his story without making it sound like he's boasting about a top video game score, but every so often there's a sense that he's pretty impressed with how many people he's killed. Every time that happens, it kind of makes you stop and think, "Chris Kyle might be kind of nuts, and I'm not sure I'm 100 percent onboard with his perspective."

The shift to third person places the burden of judgment more on the filmmaker than the audience. For better or worse, it's often left to the filmmaker to judge a character's actions, then characterize that character and those actions appropriately (and accurately) onscreen. In the book, Kyle is like an exposed wire. He's raw, kind of dangerous, and powerful. The book feels like a conversation, and it's more intuitive to step back and judge Kyle's words and actions. In the movie, director Clint Eastwood evens out some of those rough edges and also connects previously unconnected dots to give the movie its dramatic arc. We still get a sense of Chris Kyle the person, but it's like we're seeing him through a veil.

#2. Clint Eastwood Brings His Own History to the Movie

Clint Eastwood addressing an empty chair in place of Barack Obama at the 2012 Republican National Convention.
Clint Eastwood addressing an empty chair in place of Barack Obama at the 2012 Republican National Convention.
Getty Images

Clint Eastwood has claimed allegiance to both the Republican and Libertarian parties at various times, and many critics have pointed out his conservative leanings as proof that American Sniper is pro-Bush propaganda. But the truth is more complicated. While he is mostly conservative, Eastwood also considers himself an environmentalist, thinks we shouldn't be able to buy assault rifles, and as recently as last month he questioned the United States' involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan while saying, "I abhor violence." He has a long history of making movies that examine violence — most famously, Unforgiven. He also has a long history of being misinterpreted. For every person who sees Unforgiven as the ultimate statement on the futility of violence used in the pursuit of justice, there's someone else who just sees it as "badass," and it makes them wish they were gun-slinging cowboys.

When Clint Eastwood dies, he'll leave us a long list of movies that paint a picture of a man who felt very conflicted about the use of violence. American Sniper fits that mold. Anyone who sees the movie as either totally anti or pro war is missing some of Eastwood's nuance. It's a movie that makes us want to think about war, not tell us how to feel about it. Whether it succeeds is open for debate.

#3. On Racism & Dehumanization

In American Sniper, Chris Kyle and his fellow soldiers call the enemy "savages," and speak of human lives as a running tally of "confirmed kills." That kind of language is arguably racist, and definitely dehumanizing, but it's true to how Chris Kyle talked about combat in his book. The question is whether the audience realizes how warped that is. You might agree or disagree with the idea that soldiers must see combat like this. (The idea is that if a soldier takes the time to consider the humanity of every enemy combatant he or she encounters, then that soldier will be dead.) But whether you agree or disagree, that view is warped and can't be sustained outside a combat zone, and when it is, it often leads to trouble in civilian life. Indiewire's Negin Farsad covers this issue more extensively and eloquently than I have here. But if you felt like it was irresponsible to turn all these Iraqis into two-dimensional caricatures, you're not alone.

#4. How Much Did Chris Kyle Lie About?

Chris Kyle has been proven, in a court of law, to be a liar. He claimed in his book to have punched and knocked down a famous former SEAL referred to as "Scruff Face" after "Scruff Face" said the SEALs "deserved to lose a few guys" for being involved in an unjust war. Kyle later confirmed in interviews he was talking about actor and former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura, and Ventura sued him for defamation, winning his case in 2014 after Kyle had already died. Whether you think Kyle really was or wasn't lying, he has a history of telling tall tales. The sniper also claimed to have traveled to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, climbing to the top of the Superdome to shoot "dozens of armed residents who were contributing to the chaos." A full run-down of Kyle's five biggest alleged lies can be found over at Vulture.

#5. The Movie Dramatizes a Book That Was Probably Already Dramatized

Every movie takes some liberty with its source material, and American Sniper stays very close to the spirit of the book, but it's still been changed in a couple of key ways. Two examples stand out as important. The first is the opening. The book opens with Kyle describing a scene where he had to shoot a woman in Iraq before she could throw a hand grenade at U.S. soldiers. He says it was the only time he had to shoot a non-male combatant. The movie opens with the same scene except she gives an anti-tank grenade to a small boy, who Kyle then shoots. It's gut-wrenching in both instances, but clearly the movie is looking to up the drama by adding the child.

The other significant change is how the movie gives Kyle a couple of bad guys to chase down. In the movie, Kyle is haunted by an enemy sniper called Mustafa. He finally kills him with a miracle shot from more than a mile away. He also finds himself pursuing an unmitigated villain called "The Butcher" who uses a drill to maim Iraqi informants. The Butcher wasn't in the book at all, and while Mustafa was, he wasn't a recurring bad guy whose presence pushed Kyle into a path of vengeance. The two characters are used in the movie to show how Kyle is drawn into his role as a sniper, helping to explain why he keeps going back into combat. The book doesn't need the characters since Kyle is so open and honest about his feeling of obligation to return again and again.

If you want to know more about what's fact and fiction in the movie, you can check out this breakdown from Time.

#6. PTSD, Not Death, Is the Most Significant Consequence of War in Modern Movies

Saving Private Ryan might have been the last modern war movie more concerned about the state of a soldier's body than his mind. As a rule, World War II movies are morally unambiguous, probably because the Nazis were so unambiguously evil. But movies about soldiers in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan have been much more morally ambivalent, taking pains to show the toll war takes on survivors. They often show the sometimes life-destroying effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. A lot of people have been comparing American Sniper to The Hurt Locker, which is apt not just because they're tonally similar, but also because they've both been misinterpreted by some as pro-war when they're really more about the cost to the surviving soldiers.

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