Clint Eastwood's new film "American Sniper" has become the latest battleground in the culture wars. Washington Post columnist Alyssa Rosenberg explains why its politics matter. (Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

Everyone involved with this week’s most popular movie claims it has nothing to do with politics. Really, star actor Bradley Cooper stressed over and again in interviews, it doesn’t. Director Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” simply explains the “plight” of the soldier, he told the Daily Beast, providing a “character study.”

But this was no ordinary soldier. This was the late Chris Kyle, the much-mythologized “deadliest sniper” in American history. And regardless of what Cooper wants, his movie has become political.

Before he was shot to death at a Texas gun range, Kyle, who claimed he killed at least 150 people while working as a sniper in Iraq, oozed conviction and charisma. He wore big boots. He spoke with a languid Texas drawl. He wrote a best-selling memoir. He made millions. And he stirred controversy just about everywhere he went.

[How Bradley Cooper trained for the role of Chris Kyle in ‘American Sniper]

The conversation that now shadows the release of “American Sniper,” which collected a record $105 million over the holiday weekend, has been no different. After days of nationwide screenings, which the Associated Press called an “unprecedented success,” the film was subject to widespread praise among conservatives for depicting an American soldier at his best and condemnation among some liberals who question the admitted pleasure Kyle took in killing and dehumanizing Iraqis.

And then there were the tales Kyle told about himself, which came under increasing suspicion after numerous journalists tried — and failed — to corroborate them. Among them: Kyle once said he shot dead two armed Texas thugs who wanted to steal his truck. He said he traveled down to New Orleans and killed 30 bad guys in the chaos following Hurricane Katrina. And he also falsely claimed he punched out former Minnesota governor Jesse “the Body” Ventura after Ventura, a former member of a U.S. Navy Underwater Demolition Team, disparaged the Navy SEALs.

“There were a lot of things he told people that are really unverifiable,” journalist Michael J. Mooney, who wrote a book on Kyle, told The Washington Post in July.

In the latest trailer for "American Sniper," directed by Clint Eastwood and based on the autobiography of the name, Bradley Cooper plays U.S. Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, who is said to have had the most confirmed kills in U.S. military history. Kyle struggled with PTSD and was killed at a gun range by a fellow veteran in February 2013. The film opens Dec. 25. (Warner Bros. UK)

But anyone who mentions such holes in the Chris Kyle narrative or critiques the ethos under which he operated does so at his or her own peril. It’s a lesson that journalist Rania Khalek, who calls objectivity “bulls—” on her Twitter profile, learned days ago when she let loose a series of tweets that took aim at Kyle. She highlighted several passages in Kyle’s book, also titled “American Sniper.”

“Savage, despicable evil,” Kyle wrote. “That’s what we were fighting in Iraq. That’s why a lot of people, myself included, called the enemy ‘savages.’ There really was no other way to describe what we encountered there.” He later added: “There’s another question people ask a lot: ‘Did it bother you killing so many people in Iraq?’ I tell them, ‘No.’ … I loved what I did. … I’m not lying or exaggerating to say it was fun.”

To Khalek, any movie that lionizes Kyle represents “dangerous propaganda that sanitizes a mass killer and rewrites the Iraq War.” She said Kyle was consumed by “unrepentant bloodlust” fueled by “hatred, bigotry and enthusiasm for killing Iraqi ‘savages.'” Khalek got death threats almost immediately for her comments.

One man, who has since had his Twitter account deactivated, told her she “NEED[ED] TO BE SHOT DEAD. DO ALL A FAVOR..GO KILL YOURSELF.” Or, as the left-wing Web site Alternet commented after posting an article critical of Kyle: “This kicked off an endless flood in our Twitter mentions of outraged right-wing military worshipers who’ve whipped themselves into a hateful frenzy out of blind obedience to a mass killer.”

[RELATED: Trial of Eddie Routh, killer of Chris Kyle, will be darkest chapter of ‘American Sniper’]

Even those who were less incendiary were met with online venom. On Saturday, “The Interview” actor Seth Rogen, who himself just emerged from a political storm, observed that “‘American Sniper’ kind of reminds me of the movie that’s showing in the third act of ‘Inglourious Basterds,'” referencing a Nazi propaganda film, inside Quentin Tarantino’s film, that glorifies a German sniper. Rogen quickly backed off the remark, adding that he “actually liked” the movie. But that wasn’t before he got walloped: “Amazing considering guys like Kyle are the reason you’re not sitting in a NKorean prison right now,” one person told him.

On Jan. 18, documentary filmmaker Michael Moore tweeted: “My uncle killed by sniper in WW2. We were taught snipers were cowards. Will shoot u in the back. Snipers aren’t heroes. And invaders r worse.” He too doubled back, saying he thought Cooper’s performance was great. But, he added, “most of us were taught the story of Jesse James and that the scoundrel wasn’t James (who was a criminal who killed people) but rather the sniper who shot him in the back. I think most Americans don’t think snipers are heroes. Hopefully not on this weekend when we remember that man in Memphis, Tennessee, who was killed by a sniper’s bullet.”

Even Sarah Palin entered the fray, excoriating “Hollywood leftists” for “spitting on the graves of freedom fighters who allow you to do what you do, just realize the rest of American knows you’re not fit to shine Chris Kyle’s combat boots.”

The exchanges are just the latest eruption in a long culture war, analysts said, with lines clearly demarcated. “As screenings have sold out, conservative media has manned barricades against liberals who have attacked the movie or the idea of lionizing Kyle,” conservative David Weigel wrote for Bloomberg. He noted that much of the controversy involves the extended battle over guns — and gun control — and pits pro-Iraq war conservatives against anti-war liberals.  

But it also hints at another gulf in American politics: the plummeting number of Americans who serve in the armed services, which has given rise to what experts call a widening cultural divide between civilians and combat veterans. During World War II, more than 12 percent of Americans served in the military. Today fewer than .5 percent do, and many belong to a demographic that military analyst Thomas Ricks called “socially isolated, politically conservative.” That growing chasm has resulted in a modern America in which few grant much thought to soldiers except for ritualized reverence.

If there’s any cultural force that exacerbates misunderstandings, it’s movies like “American Sniper,” according to Karl Eikenberry and David Kennedy in the New York Times. To many conservatives and members of the armed services, Chris Kyle was a man beyond reproach, and to criticize him disrespects both the military and those who choose to serve.

“The greatest challenge to our military is not from a foreign enemy — it’s from the widening gap between the American people and their armed forces,” the authors wrote in 2013.  “… The media offer us images of drone pilots, thousands of miles from the fray, coolly and safely dispatching enemies in their electronic cross hairs. Hollywood depicts superhuman teams of Special Operations forces snuffing out their adversaries with clinical precision.”

Georgetown alum and "American Sniper" star Bradley Cooper returns to his old stomping grounds for his D.C. red carpet premiere and shares his favorite Washington activity with the Reliable Source. (Alice Li/The Washington Post)