Clint Eastwood’s latest movie, American Sniper, has become the most controversial film now being considered for Best Picture at the upcoming Oscars.
The Academy Awards telecast is scheduled for February 22.
The criticism is coming from the Left, and this has triggered outrage on the Right. Some of this criticism is correct and fair, but some of it isn’t.
CHARGE: The film implies that the Iraq was was in response to 9/11.
There’s a scene where Kyle (Bradley Cooper) and his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller) are watching TV as the World Tradd Center crashes. Then the scene cuts to him serving in Iraq.
FACT: The movie is a biography of Kyle, who became the deadliest sniper in American history, not a documentary on the Iraq war. And, in fact, Kyle did his service in Iraq.
Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle in American Sniper
CHARGE: The movie depicts a terrorist sniper who becomes Kyle’s nemesis.
Named “Mustafa,” he is portrayed as a Syrian Olympics champion marksman. In a furious mano-a-mano duel with Kyle, he almost nails the SEAL sniper. But in the climax of the movie, he meets his end with a well-placed bullet from Kyle’s rifle.
FACT: Mustafa is mentioned in a single–and short–paragraph in Kyle’s autobiography. Writes Kyle: “I never saw him, but the other snipers later killed an Iraqi sniper we thought was him.”
So the climatic duel never happened. But Eastwood clearly thought he needed the duel to make a dramatic and satisfying finish for his movie. This is what’s known as “dramatic license” in moviemaking.
CHARGE: The movie portrays Chris Kyle as tormented by his rising casualty rate among Iraqis.
During his fourth tour of duty in Iraq, as depicted in the film, he agonizes over his possible need to shoot a child who’s about to pick up a rocket launcher. “Don’t pick it up,” he mutters, and when the child drops it and runs off, Kyle is visibly relieved.
FACT: Throughout his autobiography–on which the film is based–he refers to Iraqis as “savages.” He brags of telling a military investigator: “I don’t shoot people with Korans. I’d like to, but I don’t.”
And having been credited with 160 confirmed kills, he writes: “I only wish I had killed more….I believe the world is a better place without savages out there taking American lives.”
CHARGE: Chris Kyle was a hate-filled killer, but the movie turns him into a hero.
FACT: It’s entirely natural for soldiers to hate their enemies. They know that they–or their comrades–can be blown away at any moment. So they fear and hate those intent on their destruction.
The toughening-up process starts in boot camp, where the restraints of individuality and pacifism are shattered. The purpose of boot camp is to turn “boys” into “fighting men,” and this must be done in a matter of weeks. So the process is shockingly brutal.
Soldiers who aren’t toughened up in boot camp are by the battlefield. As General George S. Patton famously warned: “When you put your hand into a bunch of goo, that a moment before was your best friend’s face, you’ll know what to do.”
General George S. Patton
During the Indian wars, soldiers called Indians “Red niggers.” In World War II–“the Good War”–America’s servicemen fought “Japs” and “Krauts.” During the Vietnam war, Vietnamese became “gooks” and “dinks.”
Today our servicemen and women refer (unofficially) to their Islamic enemies as “ragheads” and “sand niggers.”
CHARGE: “In Kyle’s version of the Iraq war, the parties consisted of Americans, who were good by virtue of being Americans, and fanatic Muslims, whose ‘savage, despicable evil’ led them to want to kill Americans simply because they are Christian.” –Laura Miller, in Salon
FACT: British military historian B.H. Liddell Hart noted in his introduction to the memoirs of World War II German General Heinz Guderian, the creator of the Blitzkreig theory:
“[Guderian] did not question the cause which he and his troops were serving, or the duty of fighting for their country. It was sufficient for him that she was at war and thus in danger, however it had come about.
“As a dutiful soldier, he had to assume that his country’s cause was just, and that she was defending herself against would-be conquerors.”
What proved true for Guderian proved equally true for Kyle–and for soldiers in armies throughout the world.
Moreover, every great war movie tells its story from a given viewpoint–such as American, German, Russian or British. Audiences are invited to identify with the leading character.
In All Quiet on the Western Front, the narrator is a young, idealistic German soldier who becomes disallusioned with the horrors of war. When he dies at the end of the movie, we feel saddened by his loss, even though he served in the ranks of America’s adversaries.
Similarly, when we learn, at the end of American Sniper, that Chris Kyle was killed while trying to help a fellow veteran, we feel a similar loss.
In the end, a historical or biographical movie can tell only so much. Its audience must then decide its meaning–and whether to learn more about the subjec through their own researches.