American Sniper : Rethinking Our Criticism

I quickly grew tired of reading passionate reviews of American Sniper that contained a sentence midpoint that read, "I haven't seen the movie." And so it was that I decided to go see the movie myself.
01/26/2015 08:31 pm ET Updated Mar 28, 2015

I quickly grew tired of reading passionate reviews of American Sniper that contained a sentence midpoint that read, "I haven't seen the movie." And so it was that I decided to go see the movie myself.

I'll start by saying that the most common complaint I've seen -- that "it glorifies war" -- falls flat. The theater was full, and as several hundred people sat through the credits in silence and got up in silence and walked out of the theater in silence, I was pretty sure they weren't all fired up to get out there and go to war. My guess is that, like me, they were thinking that war is awful and horrific, and that if it doesn't kill you, it likely breaks something inside you.

My second problem with criticism of the movie is the notion, shared by Michael Moore, that snipers, by virtue of what they do, are "cowards," and the idea that somehow they engage in dirty pool by shooting at someone who isn't shooting back. And I have to ask: What rulebook are we playing by? This is war, and it hasn't been a gentleman's game perhaps ever, but certainly not since we lined up in brightly colored uniforms and marched in neat rows slaughtering each other on an actual field of battle. To wish that war had a code of ethics and conformed to our ideas of civilized behavior seems naive. We gave up civilized behavior when we went to war. And herein lies the problem.

When we go to war, we are taking people who were raised to not fight on the playground, and to be nice to each other, and to live by the rules of society and a code of ethics where aggression is punished, where the bad guys are the violent ones, and the nice people use their words, and we are asking them to selectively forget that while they go kill people for a few months. Then we let them come home to their families and people who go about their lives oblivious to war. And instead of letting them heal and process and put the experience behind them, we make them go back. Again and again and again. We demand they turn this civilian code of morality on and off and on and off. We can't do that to people and expect that they won't need to find a narrative to justify what they do, a reason that they make it OK. Soldiers kill the enemy in theory so that the enemy won't kill them -- or their buddies or fellow soldiers. Kill other people before they kill you. And the less they seem like people, the easier it is to kill them.

So what happens when the enemy is a child with an IED? What do you do? This is a question that most of us will never have to answer. And this is why writing a tidy little review of American Sniper is impossible. If you have the actual experience to relate to this movie, you cannot be objective about it, and for good reason. If you are detached enough to be objective, then you lack the experience to make an informed judgment.

Was the story completely "true"? Well, probably not. Welcome to Hollywood. They can't even stick to the plot of The Hobbit, for Pete's sake. But they are just doing their job too. They make movies so you can sit for a few hours and think outside your box, see the world through different eyes. And this movie does that. The acting in some cases was brilliant, and in others a bit two-dimensional. And Clint Eastwood is not my favorite person, but he's a good director.

Was Chris Kyle a hero or a villain? The answer is neither, and that's what has people at each other's throats over this film. In real life very few of us are heroes or villains. We're all out there in our grey hats trying to pigeonhole complicated thoughts and unpleasant acts into black and white. Chris Kyle lived in the world of grey. He was wired in a way that allowed him do things that most of us couldn't do. But do you seek out gentle, compassionate, non-violent, humble caretakers to go to war and shoot people? Probably not.

The bottom line is that Chris Kyle did what we asked him to do. He didn't perch on a rooftop in New York City and pick off people coming out of an office building. But he had to commit virtually those same acts a few thousand miles away, and be OK with that in his own mind. As a country, I think we need to acknowledge that we ask combat soldiers to do the unthinkable every day. And perhaps we shouldn't be so critical of them when they do what we ask.

If we are going to criticize, let's be merciless with those who get us into wars in the first place. Let's be ruthless with them. Let's be brutal. Make them justify their behavior -- not a sniper, not a Hollywood director. The movie will mean very different things depending on who is watching. But I hope we can all leave the theater, in our silence, with a sense that war should always be the last resort, and that even when it's fought at a conveniently far distance from our lives here, it always comes home.