Alyssa Rosenberg writes The Post’s Act Four blog, at www.washingtonpost.com/news/act-four/.
Given the ferocious fights over politics and fidelity to history that have defined this Oscar season, perhaps it’s no surprise that “American Sniper” star Bradley Cooper wants to avoid his portrayal of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle becoming a partisan football.
“It’s not a political movie at all, it’s a movie about a man — a character study,” he insisted in December. “We hope that you can have your eyes opened to the struggle of the soldier rather than the specifics of the war.”
But what about the specifics of the man himself? “American Sniper,” based on Kyle’s memoir of the same name, scrupulously sands off Kyle’s edges and political beliefs until he becomes precisely the generic stand-in for U.S. service members that Cooper feared the movie might represent. “American Sniper” would have been a better film about Kyle and the war he fought in if director Clint Eastwood had been as bold with politics on film as he was on the Republican National Convention stage in 2012.
In the film, Kyle uses the word “savages,” but “American Sniper” doesn’t make room to explore the depth of his contempt for Iraqis that comes through in his memoir. He drove remote-controlled cars at them at high speed for the pleasure of watching their alarm: “Their high-pitched screams, coupled with sprints in the opposite direction, had me doubled over. Cheap thrills in Iraq were priceless,” Kyle wrote. He bragged about stealing from their homes against orders. He compared them to U.S. welfare recipients in their dependency and inability to handle freedom.
And Kyle saw his distaste for the people he was fighting as explicitly connected to his faith. “On the front of my arm, I had a crusader cross inked in,” he wrote. “I wanted everyone to know I was a Christian. I had it put in red, for blood. I hated the damn savages I’d been fighting. I always will. They’ve taken so much from me.” In a scene in the movie, Kyle is accused of shooting someone carrying a Koran, which he mistook for a weapon. In the film, he simply protests that he couldn’t possibly have made such a mistake. But in his memoir, Kyle writes that he told investigators, “I don’t shoot people with Korans — I’d like to, but I don’t.”
I understand why Eastwood might have wanted to avoid these elements of Kyle’s memoir, as well as his distaste for the military’s civilian leadership and his belief that the United States never really wanted to find any weapons of mass destruction. They make Kyle a harder sell, both to people who already see the war on terror as fundamentally racist and to those who adamantly deny that it is animated in any way by anti-Arab bias.
But “American Sniper” would have been a much bolder movie, and much more interesting, if it had been willing to explore the proposition that society has a use for people who enjoy violence and who find it relatively easy to turn the people they kill into abstractions.
Alternately, Eastwood might have connected one of the central moments in “American Sniper” to more complicated stories Kyle told about himself.
In the film, after Kyle gets into a fight in defense of his younger brother, his father tells him that there are three kinds of people: sheep, wolves and sheepdogs. “I will whip [you] if you become a wolf. But we protect our own.” The line between a wolf that hunts for the joy of violence and a sheepdog that fights only when it must to keep its flock safe at times can be a difficult one to keep clear.
In Kyle’s memoir, he brags of breaking up gang activity by beating sailors aboard the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk, of brawling with ultimate fighters, of flipping over cars, of decking a man who insulted a waitress. He didn’t include in the book more extreme stories he apparently told acquaintances, including a tale of shooting or helping to shoot 30 people during looting that took place under the cover of Hurricane Katrina and another of killing two men who tried to carjack him at a gas station.
It’s curious that Eastwood excludes both Kyle’s fanciful stories of violence committed out of uniform and his more believable ones. Including some of them could have let “American Sniper” pose a series of powerful questions: Was Kyle a sheepdog? Or did he become a wolf? And what happens to a wolf that thinks it’s still protecting the flock, when in fact it’s simply gratifying its own violent urges?
Eastwood and Cooper may have hoped to avoid commenting on the war in Iraq with “American Sniper.” But in doing so, they made a movie that lacked the courage to truly see Chris Kyle as a person.