It’s the quiet that’s the most moving thing. At the end of the film, no one said a word.
There is a small category of films that for me fall under the heading of “Movies Everyone Should See.” American Sniper is one such film. This does not mean I think people should see it because I think it’s one of the greatest movies ever made; I don’t: I think the plotline is cumbersome and oddly constructed and the script is predictable and average. This also does not mean I think it’s one of the most entertaining movies ever made; it’s not. But it is a film that shows us something important about ourselves and our society, something we all should try to understand.
Clint Eastwood’s direction of “American Sniper“, coupled with Bradley Cooper’s moving performance as Chris Kyle, shows us with vivid clarity what war can do to a human being. The film is a biopic, and like most, it does not give the dead the respect that it should: it bends the easily-verifiable truth in odd ways for weird reasons and calls it Artistic License. (For instance, the child that is the center of the pivotal opening scene was actually a little girl.)
But the story, taken at face value, is an important one, and one that Eastwood and his cast tell well. Cooper’s performance as well as Sienna Miller’s, are spot on: you find yourself choosing a side in their personal battle. I found myself both pitying and nearly hating Kyle’s wife Taya because of Sienna’s work: she portrayed Taya’s selfish need to be Chris’ sole concern as well as her loneliness, struggles, and sadness so well.
Much has been made of the moral ambiguity many people feel after seeing the film, which is interesting to me. We seem to need wars to be Black and White, to be Our Glorious Cause or Absolutely Evil. That makes it easier to “choose this day whom we will serve” if you will.
American Sniper’s greatest service to us is that feeling of unsettling ambiguity: it stuns us with our thirst to see Chris to get back on that wall and blow some damn terrorist away even as we ache for him to come home and hug his wife and let her back into his life. We cheer him at the same time we are a bit repulsed by his enthusiasm and love of his reputation as The Most Lethal Sniper in U. S. History. A significant portion of viewers find themselves having a hard time deciding if Chris is the protagonist or the antagonist in this film, because the further they get into the story, they see him turn into both.
There’s a strange comparison I find myself making as I think about this movie: people with a lust for power (which, make no mistake, Kyle had in metric tons) often have a God complex. People with a God complex: a lust for a god-like life-and-death control over people, often begin as people of incredible nobility. Many are seeking to avenge an injustice, as Kyle may have been: the flashbacks of the Kyle brothers hints at that. These “sheepdogs” strive to serve and protect their fellow man. They’re even tender-hearted.
But, when that lust to be like the Lord thy God grows (“I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things. That they may know from the rising of the sun, and from the west, that there is none beside me. I am the Lord, and there is none else.” Isaiah 45: 6-7), so many people begin to lose their humanity as their talent for power takes hold.
In Kyle’s case, he became an Angel of Death (“For I will pass through the land of Egypt this night, and will smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the Lord. … And it came to pass, that at midnight the Lord smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the firstborn of cattle.” Exodus 12: 12, 29). And he liked it. He was proud to do his duty: to protect Marines on the ground; in fact, Kyle was only haunted by the shots he did not take. We laud him for his service and his deadly skill, deservedly so, because he fought under our flag and he killed our nation’s enemies. We’re very proud of our finest killer.
That’s a bone-chilling truth.
Kyle found his purpose, his talent, and his service to the United States as a Navy SEAL sniper. It was the place in which he was most at peace, the most at home, the most fulfilled. But his purpose stole his spirit. Bradley Cooper does a masterful job of showing this: watch his eyes in the film. They die slowly. Kyle is wrenched with the decision he’s given at the beginning of the film: to kill the child or not? (“Vengeance is mine saith the Lord…”) Once that decision is made: protect the Marines regardless of who is endangering them, there is no turning back, and Kyle then sleeps soundly.
One of the things the movie shows is how difficult it is for the human heart to bear such things. Chris had to weigh two heavy burdens: his duty to his men and his country and the priceless life of a child. How in the world can a person make such a choice and not be terribly scarred? Kyle made a valiant effort to soften his heart again: his work with veterans, though glossed over in the film, shows his greatest strength: he fought, and was slowly winning the war within himself. (It should be noted that the Cleaver-esque family life the movie depicted is pure fiction: Chris and Taya Kyle’s love suffered greatly.)
When American men and women put on a uniform and stand a post, they are often placed in situations that demand they make impossible choices, choices only deities should make. Many see evils only devils can bear, and unspeakable horrors haunt their dreams that slam into them after they’ve been returned to what must seem like a surreal other-worldly home with a sound or a phrase or a smell. And then, their loved ones, wanting to understand, wanting to help lessen the weight of their burdens, demand they relive it by sharing it with them.
But there’s no understanding the smell of a death you were glad you caused, no relating to the horror and revulsion you experience at the sound of a drill. And, more than that, the men and women who bear those scars do so you and I don’t have to: sharing their experiences with us is often the equivalent of failing the whole mission. So they bury it, and it slowly eats at them, and their eyes tell us the story of the inner war they wage to keep their humanity. It’s an awful and necessary thing we ask our military to do for us. There is no way to adequately repay the debt we owe, no way to justify the things we ask of those who serve us, voluntarily, in our armed forces. There’s no way to repay their loved ones.
And thus the silence.