Americans are abuzz over American Sniper. The Clint Eastwood film grossed $105 million in its opening weekend, more than The Hobbit and Avatar. It has shattered January box office records in “red and blue states, small and large cities, tiny towns — everywhere”. Furthermore, it has earned 6 Academy Award nominations, including for best picture and best leading actor.
But Americans are buzzing about more than the blockbuster sales and moving performances. They are also embroiled in a heated debate on the subject of the film, Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. Kyle completed four tours in Iraq between 2003 and 2009. During this time, he racked up 160 confirmed enemy kills, making him the most lethal US sniper in history.
In 2009, Kyle received an honorable discharge after 10 years of service. He returned to Texas and wrote a best-selling memoir, in which he claimed to have killed over 200 enemy combatants, 2 Texan car thieves, and 30 looters after Hurricane Katrina. Ironically, Kyle met his end in 2013 when he “was shot point-blank and killed by Eddie Ray Routh, a veteran suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder”.
American Sniper, and its profile of Kyle, has provoked intense reactions on both sides. Some argue that the film glorifies a “misanthropic, racist, stone-cold killer”. In Los Angles, vandals painted “Murder!” on a billboard for the film. Others call the film “jingoistic propaganda”. Actor Seth Rogan, for example, likened it to the Nazi propaganda movie in Inglorious Basterds. But perhaps the most incendiary comments came from director and anti-gun activist, Michael Moore. Quoting his father, Moore stated that sniper “aren’t heroes” but “cowards [that] will shoot you in the back”. He noted that Martin Luther King Jr, honored this week, was “killed by a sniper’s bullet”.
On the flip side, many have fervently defended the film. Former Navy SEAL sniper instructor Brandon Webb says that the film “[celebrates] a hero...when the country needs a hero”. Country singer and veteran Craig Morgan hailed the film’s depiction of military sacrifice, stating “you have no idea what it takes for this country to maintain our freedoms”. And the often-controversial Sarah Palin wrote on Facebook: “God bless our troops, especially our snipers”.
Spokespeople for the film have a more measured response. Bradley Cooper, who portrayed Kyle, explains that “the film wasn’t intended to be political but a human story about a soldier’s life and internal struggles…We hope that you can have your eyes opened to the struggle of the soldier rather than the specifics of the war”. The filmmakers concur, asserting that they “wanted the movie to be a thoughtful character study of the most lethal military sniper in U.S. history”.
Regardless of your perspective, one thing is clear: American Sniper has triggered a critical conversation about America’s veterans (generating twice the average twitter volume for films). As noted in past blogs, these veterans face major challenges during the transition from military to civilian life, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In the words of Cooper, “We need to pay attention to our vets … people are coming home, and we have to take care of them”.
Flickr photo credit: Mike Mozart