“American Sniper,” Clint Eastwood’s military drama starring Bradley Cooper as Navy SEAL and Iraq war sharpshooter Chris Kyle, solidified its standing as this season’s biggest surprise hit — and perhaps the biggest war movie of all time — over the weekend, with its domestic box office earnings surging past $200 million. The film, which is nominated for six Oscars, including best actor and best picture, has also become a bona fide cultural phenomenon, inspiring a slew of commentaries and social media sub-arguments that occasionally confound expectations.
There’s no doubt that “American Sniper” is a big hit with the red-state constituencies from which Kyle and many of his fellow service members hail. But the movie — a well-acted, absorbing portrait of Kyle in action during the Iraq war and coping with trauma and dislocation when he returns home — has been a hit with viewers of all philosophical stripes. It may be the first — and last — movie to earn Twitter love from Sarah Palin and Jane Fonda.
Over the weekend, at a Producers Guild Awards event, Eastwood insisted that, rather than glorifying combat, “American Sniper” is antiwar, in that it portrays “what [war] does to the family and the people who have to go back into civilian life like Chris Kyle did.” Hours earlier, comedian Bill Maher had slammed the film and its protagonist, declaring Kyle “a psychopath patriot.”
That “American Sniper” has been greeted with such different interpretations is a testament to a movie that never hews to obvious ideological lines. But the wildly divergent readings are also typical of an emerging genre of war film that “American Sniper” exemplifies, one that strikes a different focus and tone than its predecessors. Films of earlier eras commonly portrayed boots-on-the-ground soldiers as either victims, demons or mythologized heroes. In today’s war movies, they’re professionals, represented on a par with journalists, attorneys and police detectives whose journeys have propelled movie narratives for decades.
“American Sniper” joins a slew of wartime professional procedurals that take similar positions toward their protagonists, from 2013’s “Lone Survivor” to last year’s “Fort Bliss,” about an Army medic and single mother returning home after a tour in Afghanistan. The filmmakers who have perfected the genre most successfully are director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, whose superb wartime thrillers “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty” best express the new sensibility: Their main characters aren’t cowboys or ill-fated cannon fodder but skillful, serious-minded operators who are focused on the duty at hand. The tone is sympathetic but not hagiographic, appreciative but not uncritically awestruck; instead Bigelow and Boal treat their protagonists with evenhanded frankness — which goes a long way in explaining why “Zero Dark Thirty” became a big hit in 2012, despite being targeted for a takedown by opportunistic politicians who mistook its representation of torture for endorsement.
The same kind of controversy has been brewing around “American Sniper,” with some viewers seeing it as a blinkered glorification of an unjust war and others admiring how Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall portray the psychic toll the Iraq conflict took on Kyle. (Still others object that Kyle, who called Iraqis “savages” in his book and boasted of picking off looters from the Superdome rooftop during Hurricane Katrina, wasn’t nearly the paragon of rectitude the filmmakers portray him as.) Although Kyle supports the Iraq war, some of his colleagues do not: “American Sniper” leaves it to viewers to decide if his unyielding faith in the mission is warranted.
The fact that no one knows quite how to take “American Sniper” — that it can’t be reductively labeled as a polemic — is typical of a genre that often lands like a square peg in the round hole of our hyperpartisan political discourse. Rather than an avatar of noble American exceptionalism or a symbol of a grievously misguided foreign doctrine, Kyle is portrayed as a highly trained, surpassingly competent operator whose comfort with firearms and self-image as a protector dovetails perfectly with his chosen career path.
Eastwood, Hall and Cooper are careful never to put a heavy spin on Kyle as a hero, victim or villain. The result is that viewers are embracing and abhorring the film for the same reason: They’re conflating simple respect with valorization.
In a post-draft era of a volunteer armed forces, the familiar tropes of World War II and Vietnam movies no longer hold. Soldiers now sign up fully aware of what they’re getting into, so they don’t quite fit the binary black-hat-white-hat roles of yore. As members of the military often observe (paraphrasing Winston Churchill), rarely have so few served for so long for so many.
At its best, the military professional procedural serves as a symbolic bridge of understanding for a populace that, as James Fallows recently wrote in the Atlantic, is “reverent but disengaged” when it comes to the men and women who have chosen to fight on its behalf. The filmmakers’ challenge is to find a way to honestly portray soldiers’ service, sacrifice and dedication without using them as hobby horses to endorse or critique the political decisions that put them in harm’s way.
In many ways, the myriad interpretations of “American Sniper” reflect a conflict from which most Americans were personally disconnected and about which they remain steadfastly unresolved, and an asymmetrical global context that is deeply unsettling and confusing. With consensus still stubbornly elusive, we reflexively look for heroes, but they’re no longer martyred draftees, morally damaged warmongers or shining warrior-gods. They’re just ordinary people, doing jobs that are anything but.