"My Regrets Are About The People I Couldn't Save." - Chris Kyle
Wow, this was a tough one. The movie American Sniper has generated significant controversy in the past couple of weeks for its portrayal of U.S. sniper Chris Kyle in his tours during the Iraq war. There were many different topics which came to mind about this particular post, and all of them seemed likely to generate strong feelings by one group of people or another. It seemed for awhile that this topic was just too hot to handle. But then I decided I would try to think through some of the reasons people might be upset with this film. Here are a few reasons why this movie seems to make so many people upset (and so many others hyped up).
American Sniper is about Chris Kyle. Better yet, American Sniper IS Chris Kyle (or at the least the war as seen through his eyes). We watch as he witnesses 9/11 and then signs up for the military, we are right there on a rooftop in Baghdad as he sees a kid try to throw a grenade at some U.S. troops, we hear his justification that everything he did was done to protect his men. The scenes and dialogue seem to very strongly represent his thoughts, feelings, and points of view on the war and his actions. All of this is understandable in the context of war, but we as the viewers are not (and almost all have never been) in war. It lays bare the facts of what he did, but provides only the minimal amount of context needed to make the audience feel (at least somewhat) comfortable with his actions.
I would like to make one thing very clear on this: I am neither condoning nor condemning the actions of Chris Kyle. War is messy, chaotic, and often tragic. He was doing his job as a solider by protecting the men and women who served with him. Put in that terrible situation, it is difficult to determine how anyone might react. The real concern with this film does not come from what was shown in the movie so much as what was not shown. For instance, it is important to show that the American soldiers had families and lives back home, but the Iraqi people (not to be confused with the insurgents) do not receive any such humanizing experience in this film. There are only a few times where the movie shows Chris directly interacting with Iraqi civilians, and they are almost universally negative. When a family decides to help the U.S. forces find a brutal insurgent fighter known as the Butcher, the family asks for a hundred thousand dollars in return. When Chris and his squad are invited to celebrate the Eid Al-Adha dinner with an Iraqi man, it turns out he has a huge weapons cache in his house and is an insurgent fighter waiting to betray them.
It isn't that things like this never occurred (there are plenty of documented cases like this), it is that they are the only interactions depicted in this film and thus are the only examples upon which a person can base their opinions of Iraqis in this movie (this becomes problematic when millions of people watch this film and draw conclusions about the war based upon it). These are probably some of the experiences that stick out most in his story, but omitting any positive experience of the Iraqi population (of which he must have had at least a few) leads to the perception that the film is skewed towards favoring American troops while demonizing the Iraqis. This is one of the critical areas which could have been improved upon to prevent some of the controversy surrounding this movie.
As I hinted at before, the film does little to provide context for the battles we witness. The straight-to-the-point, hard hitting manner in which battles are presented generates a similar reaction to when people see a generic and potentially controversial news headline. For instance, a headline which reads "White Cop Kills Black Teenager" already generates (in some people) anger and preconceived notions of innocence and guilt (on both the officer or the kid) before any details are given (was the officer being attacked, was the kid just going about his business?). In the same way, this film shows exactly what happened, but then does little to help explain it, leaving the viewer to use their own biases to fill in the gaps. If you want to see a brave American fighting for freedom in this film, that's what you will end up seeing. If you want to see a narrative of "white people are good and brown people are bad," you will end up seeing that instead. The film reflects our own beliefs and biases, and the fact that it does little to challenge these is probably the single greatest reason it has become so controversial.
I can fully appreciate the main theme behind this movie: that veterans need far more attention and that we need to attempt to understand their struggles (especially the extreme levels of PTSD for current veterans). However at its core, this is not the primary focus of this film. Far more screen time is devoted to Chris hunting down a rival sniper or shooting insurgents than his work with veterans. In all, his work with returning veterans takes up all of about three or four scenes towards the end. Even in places where the film does show the haunting effects of war in a peaceful atmosphere, it doesn't explain them. We see Chris violently subduing a playful dog (he was attacked by a vicious one in an earlier scene), but the psychological reasons for his reaction would have been far better explained through dialogue between him and his fellow veterans. By explaining what he is going through rather than just showing it, people could then understand exactly how PTSD leaves soldiers on edge and sometimes even longing for combat again. Regrettably, we instead see scene after scene of Chris increasing his kill count with only the occasional PTSD episode, thus making his memorial service scenes at the end appear like more of a acknowledgement of the lives he took rather than a celebration of the ones he saved.
Overall, the movie accurately portrays the difficulty of making decisions in war. The movie depicts Iraqis and the insurgency exactly how an American solider would NEED to view the war in order to do what they did (anyone could be a potential enemy, danger is around every corner...). If soldiers like Chris Kyle were constantly thinking about the economic and social conditions which led some people to join an insurgency, they would probably get killed. This makes sense in the context of war, but when viewed in its raw form on screen (without any explanation that this is the mindset needed to conduct war), it appears callous, uncaring, and brutal.
Furthermore, the film is a great representation of the motivations, values, and feelings of an American solider, but it does nothing to help explain or evaluate these ideas. It takes them at face value. It does not take the time to explain these beliefs and motivations, so some people only see a justified American hero while others see a murderous villain. Lines by Chris such as "I don't know what a Qur'an looks like, but it looked like he had a gun" are examples of how people can very quickly get distracted by insensitive quotes and misunderstand what the movie is trying to say.
In all, it is the decision to show the war through only one person's perspective that is probably the primary reason for this controversy. Like looking through a sniper scope, we get a very detailed, but detached picture of one aspect of this war, but do not see many of the important surrounding details.
War sucks. It is messy, complicated, and impossible to predict. We can debate the merits or justifications of the war in Iraq until the end of time, but it happened, and now the world has to contend with its consequences. Like many American films before it, this movie makes the war about America. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I believe more films should emphasize the Iraqi perspective. We are quick to remember the 4,425 American soldiers who died in the conflict, but almost nobody knows about the estimated over 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths. Chris Kyle and many others were seriously scarred by their time in war, and that is a terrible tragedy. At the some time, however, an entire country and society was upended by this war (again, not commenting on whether this was justified or not, just stating that it happened). It looks like in both film and reality, we as Americans have continued to make the conflict almost entirely about us and how WE were affected, forgetting that many others suffered greatly as well....
TL;DR: Not necessarily a bad film, just very misunderstood.