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01/25/2015 12:07 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2015

How American Sniper Became a Surprise Mega-Hit Honoring America's Martial Culture and Highlighting the Futility of the Iraq War

A funny thing happened on the way to a big opening for Clint Eastwood's mostly critically acclaimed American Sniper; it turned out to be a monster, record-breaking opening for the month and the Martin Luther King holiday weekend, and Eastwood himself. A Marvel-style opening, actually, about a real-life would-be Captain America. And its second weekend is proving to be the second best box office weekend ever for a January film.

American Sniper is well on its way to being the biggest war film ever at the domestic box office, and second most popular R-rated film ever behind The Passion of the Christ.

Eastwood and star Bradley Cooper deliver a brilliantly-etched character study of America's mostly highly admirable martial culture. One which is all the more poignant considering the futile and wildly counter-productive expeditionary war in which the protagonist is engaged.


The taut and heartfelt American Sniper has proved to be a surprise massive hit, garnering six Oscar nominations including best picture, adapted screenplay, and best actor.

I say a would-be Captain America for former Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer Chris Kyle, a highly-decorated Iraq War hero who was the certified deadliest sniper in the long history of American arms, was decidedly more imperfect than the fictional Steve Rogers. I've been familiar with Kyle's story before this film was even a glimmer in the eyes of Hollywood.

After he returned from his last of an amazing four tours in Iraq, he bragged about an apparently illusory barroom fight with former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura, the ex-pro wrestler and Vietnam War Navy frogman, to Ventura's successfully litigious disapproval. He made some politically incorrect statements. He published a book -- not surprisingly called "American Sniper" -- accentuating the latter-day trend of once super secret special operators making themselves famous with books and other media appearances. And, as part of dealing with his evident post-traumatic stress disorder, Kyle did valiant work helping other post-9/11 vets in their often troubled returns home. Including, as fate would have it, the one who reportedly murdered him and a friend one fine sunny day in Kyle's home state of Texas.

Except for these last parts, Eastwood doesn't delve into such things. Some, mostly disposed to dislike a film about a hero of a war that longtime readers know I consider one of the worst mistakes in world history, use the omitted piece of the Kyle story to downgrade the film.

Maybe I give a little break to a fellow Navy guy, but the omission doesn't bother me.

American Sniper makes it clear, from the first sequence on, in which Cooper's sensitively-etched character is confronted with the choice of gunning down a woman and a small boy approaching a Marine convoy, that Kyle is a haunted and troubled man. That he also said some silly shit after he got back from the big mess in the desert takes a movie on a somewhat distracting tangent.

As it is, Sniper proceeds from start to finish in the deceptively spare and matter of fact fashion that marks the 84-year old Eastwood's style as a director. Eastwood takes an expeditious approach to filmmaking. It's an approach which has been familiar since the classic Dirty Harry when Eastwood, subbing for a temporarily under-the-weather Don Siegel, directed the telling sequence in which Inspector Callahan, ah, rescues a would-be suicide in one night rather than the studio-scheduled six nights.

Some spoilers follow.

After the gripping opening in which Kyle must decide whether or not to shoot a woman and child approaching a Marine convoy during the battle for Fallujah -- and with your knowledge of jihadists and how they operate, you can guess what Kyle does -- Eastwood takes us back in time to see how Chris Kyle came to be there in the first place.

Here we see why much of the country between the coasts is embracing this picture. For we are firmly in trucks-and-guns country, in a small city in Texas.

There the youngster Chris, who has kicked ass on a bully who picked on his little brother, gets a speech from his somewhat overbearing father, his mother occasionally silently urging him to be calm, on the nature of the world and what kind of men his boys should be in it. There are basically three kinds of the folks in the world, he intones to his sons, who are listening raptly: "Sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs." Naturally, they are to be the latter.

Relatively unadorned though Eastwood's style is, his scenes are filled with subtlety and significant nuances. Kyle's father, though evidently a man of good will and decent values, is a little harsher than he needs to be, likely to leave any son apt to wear much the same blue collar he does a little unsure of himself even as he strives to project confidence.

We see this in the next scene, a father-son hunting exercise in which young Chris helps track and then bags the deer with one snot only to be jumped on when he excitedly drops his rifle as he runs up to his target. Never drop your weapon.

He gets his father's approval, but it's more the approval of a drill sergeant than an officer. Eastwood, an Army vet himself, not an officer, doesn't spell it out, but we can infer that Papa Kyle was also a vet, a former enlisted man, perhaps with some dark memories of his own.

The little speech that young Chris gets from his dad is absolutely key to not only the film but also America's martial culture. As it happens, I got one much like it as a boy from my own father, a much-wounded hero of World War II in the Pacific. A troubled man prone to sudden outbursts of anger, in retrospect he obviously suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from his work as a scout and tip-of-the-spear combatant in some of the most brutal fighting in the Pacific. This was on top of his frequent treatments at decidedly unpicturesque Letterman Hospital (shown here), the otherwise very picturesque Presidio of San Francisco for residual shrapnel in the brain incurred in house-to-house fighting recapturing Manila from Japanese forces. Of course, in those days we'd never heard of PTSD.

Sociologically, breaking down society into sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs is fairly simplistic. But there is substantial truth in it, especially when looked at from the standpoint of predatory violence.

So it's a useful and valuable ethic for those who would defend society, especially an advanced industrial society increasingly divorced from more traditional pursuits like hunting and fishing and fighting. Which is to say it's a valuable ethic for the United States Armed Forces.

But it's an ethic which can be manipulated and subverted by those who don't honor its essence. As was the case with the Iraq War.

For it is an ethic which is not very intellectual or especially attuned to complex geopolitics. Which is why the policymakers must live up to the intrinsic bond of trust that the troops who lay themselves on the line as the sheepdogs are being painted in the right direction, one which does not waste their sacrifice and impugn the honor of the nation they're sworn to protect.

When we next see Kyle in the film, he's a rodeo rider and ranch hand, A natural sort to join the military right out of of high school, he's coming of age in the Bill Clinton years not long after the end of the Cold War. There doesn't seem to be much of a threat left in the world. You may recall the end of history, the new world order, and all that jazz. Then Chris and his brother see coverage of Al Qaeda's massive bomb attacks on the US embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi. Kyle enlists, joining the Navy so he can become a SEAL (Sea Air Land) commando.

In real life, he tried to join the then vastly more famous Marines first only to be turned down by a recruiter worried by his rodeo injuries. The Navy proved more amenable, and it was there he learned of the much more elite but then far less well known SEALs.

He makes his way through the very challenging and grueling SEAL training, which I doubt I could have done, just outside San Diego in southern California, and is selected for sniper school.

He also meets and comes to marry his wife Taya, very ably played by British actress Sienna Miller, best known for more glamorous lifestyle roles. Though she's in for some harrowing times, they're a good match. He listens to her, but doesn't follow her main advice until late in the day. But that's getting a bit ahead.

We relive the shock of 9/11 and then, well, we're in Iraq. Eastwood, who opposed the Bush/Cheney invasion of of Iraq, as he opposed the big Obama escalation in Afghanistan, doesn't editorialize about what a non sequitur it is to take down Saddam Hussein's regime after 9/11. This isn't the tale of a war protester. Instead, Kyle and his compadres find themselves struggling over time to explain to themselves and their families just what the hell they're doing in Iraq.

It's an in-your-face choice by Eastwood and Warner Bros. to go with the American Sniper title. A lot of people don't understand the sniper or find him sinister, even "un-American." Like Michael Moore, who tweeted his dislike of "cowardly" snipers before rethinking a bit and coming up with a respectful review of the film and especially Cooper's performance.

The reason why Chris Kyle is a great figure of the Iraq War in spite of the Iraq War is that he was an extraordinarily effective sniper. Kyle significantly limited the tragedy of lost American lives, and catastrophically altered American lives, in Iraq.

He played a crucial overwatch role for Marines and others who might otherwise have been ambushed by loyalists of the old Saddam dictatorship or the new jihadists cutting their eyeteeth on America's big dumb incursion into the Middle East. It may not seem sporting to kill from long distance under cover as Kyle did. But war isn't sporting. If it's a fair fight, that's because somebody screwed up. That goes for all sides. Most American casualties in Iraq were the result of various forms of sneak attack.

The sniper has a longstanding role in the history of American arms, going back to the Revolutionary War. The highly trained British Army was dismayed to find their ragtag colonial opponents fighting not out in the open in perfectly disciplined formations, but firing from behind cover. The Brits were especially alarmed by the tendency of American sharpshooters to target Royal Army officers.

The fact that most people don't know these things points up the big American disconnect on the military. Though "we thank you for your service has become more than trite, polls consistently show the military to be the most respected institution in the country. But fewer and fewer know much about it. Increasingly, especially among the so-called upper classes, there is little actual engagement with it. James Fallows, who is frank about his own avoidance of military service, has a very good article on this in the latest Atlantic.

Where my father and all my uncles were combat vets, today hardly anyone I know in politics, in either party, or the media ever wore the uniform. Beyond a certain point, the lack of any hands-on experience leads to bad policy-making.

Eastwood presents the story in episodic fashion. It is notably not a film of changing dynamics in Iraq. There is no triumphalist "surge."

Kyle, to his wife's growing dismay, keeps on going back to Iraq. He largely refuses to engage with Taya on his role in the war, unable to spin up a rationale for the war. Next thing we know, he's back in Iraq. Again.

This goes on for an astounding four tours, with Kyle in constant verbal denial about the war's effect on him. But his eyes, his body language, tell a different story in Cooper's powerful performance.

Eastwood stages some dramatic action in each of the four Iraq tour sequences. But they always begin with the colonels spinning up a different but remarkably similar mission statement for what is to come.

It becomes clear that Kyle is fighting not in furtherance of clearly evanescent geopolitical goals but to protect his colleagues and, increasingly, as losses mount, to exact revenge.

"There's evil here," he says as he tries to justify the massive American presence to one of his buddies. Who immediately replies: "There's evil everywhere."

Cooper's portrayal of Kyle shows the strains from the beginning, notwithstanding the more positive language he spouts. And those around him are more forthright in their dismay. Kyle is thrilled to run across his little brother as a Marine in Iraq, but he hates the whole deal. A SEAL buddy becomes a big doubter about the war effort and is killed in action. At the funeral, his mother reads a letter, written by real-life Navy SEAL Marc Lee, that pointedly asks "When does glory fade away and become a wrongful crusade?"

Kyle tells his wife that the doubt is what killed his friend. But he can't really articulate what he's doing over there and she is fed up. Meanwhile, Cooper's affect belies his words. He's filled with doubt, too, but doesn't want to admit it. He's maintaining an even strain.

Eastwood is a confusing figure for many who are too quick to jump to conclusions about him and his work that may say more about them.

I ripped Eastwood -- whom I've met but don't know (though I have friends who do know him) -- when he did his notorious "empty chair" routine about President Barack Obama for Mitt Romney at the 2012 Republican National Convention.

It wasn't so much that he was criticizing Obama, whom I support but who is at times eminently criticizable, but that he was doing it on behalf of Romney, who gives fatuous politicians a bad name. Maybe he was just that perturbed by Obama. But you don't have to like everything someone does to appreciate it when he does something well.

In any event, Eastwood is in a little better focus in his home state California. Appointee of Gray Davis, serving for years with distinction as an environmentally-minded state parks commissioner, endorser of Dianne Feinstein, friend of Arnold Schwarzenegger (who nonetheless did not reappoint him when Eastwood opposed a toll road through an environmentally-sensitive area), admirer of Jerry Brown.

In American Sniper, Eastwood has delivered a special film, a taut and realistic depiction of modern-day combat, men at war, and the the effects on their families and themselves. A film which makes no claim of accomplishment beyond its depiction of Kyle and his comrades fighting bravely and competently.

Eastwood has delivered many scenes of combat in his long career, which has seen him snag five Oscars, but few if any surpass Kyle's last stanza in Iraq, a chaotic and frightening sequence which nonetheless achieves clarity about Kyle's (and America's) time there as a sandstorm inexorably envelops everything. Kyle is at last ready to come home, just as most of America was more than ready to get out.

This is the second critically-acclaimed big hit in a row that originally to be a Steven Spielberg film, following right on the heels of the stunning Interstellar. As much as I respect Spielberg, who has directed some of my favorite films, I think both films are the better for having been directed by Christopher Nolan and now Eastwood. They're tougher and more challenging pieces.

Of course, the whole thing falls apart without the right person playing Chris Kyle. Here Brad Cooper, now enjoying his third straight Oscar nomination, proves that he truly is an outstanding actor.

Cooper, who put on 40 pounds for this role, is a Northeasterner, a Georgetown grad in English literature, non-jock and non-vet. He has little intrinsically in common with his character.

Yet he is utterly convincing as this blue-collar Texas shitkicker with the bombardier eyes and quietly breaking heart.

I remember Cooper when he played the LA newspaper reporter/platonic best friend to Jennifer Garner's perfect UCLA grad student by day/secret super-agent by all other hours in Alias. He's come a long way since that touching but rather thankless role, proving himself in romance, drama, and of course comedy with The Hangover movies. He was even the hilarious and affecting voice of Rocket Raccoon in Guardians of the Galaxy.

Here he's done something very special, crafting a portrayal that most Americans can appreciate if not embrace, regardless of their politics of views of our post-9/11 misadventures. With the popular response so strong, the Oscars may be more interesting this year than usual.

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