By WILL QUINN
WASHINGTON – Although it may not have won Best Picture at the 87th Academy Awards last Sunday, Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is poised to become one of the highest-grossing war films in history with a domestic take of over $300 million. The drama, based upon Navy SEAL Chris Kyle’s best-selling memoir of the same name, has also become one of the year’s most controversial and provocative films. It has drawn reactions from critics, audiences, and observers across the country, including a number of veterans attending SAIS, who offer praise and pointed criticism.
Former Navy SEAL officer Justin Legg, MA ’15, who was two training classes behind Kyle and kept in touch with him after they were assigned to different teams, is not surprised by the film’s success. “Chris is almost like a modern-day tragic hero,” he remarked, referring to Kyle’s reputation as the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history and his death at the hands of a veteran he was trying to help adjust to civilian life, “To have someone he was trying to help turn on him, it has what makes stories famous throughout the ages.” (Eddie Ray Routh, the former Marine currently on trial for Kyle’s 2013 murder at a Texas gun range, has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.) Dismissing some critics’ demands that the film delve into the controversial origins of the Iraq War, Legg argued that what the film “uses Chris Kyle as a very recognizable figure to show the willingness of the American soldier to keep fighting. To keep going back, time in, time out, to keep their country and their family safe.”
Nonetheless, Legg gives the film mixed praise for its portrayal of combat and veterans’ experiences at home. Despite singling out Bradley Cooper’s performance and the film’s depiction of how Kyle felt “almost compelled to keep returning” to combat to protect his fellow servicemen, Legg noted that several dramatic scenes seemed unrealistic. “Hollywood tends to Hollywood it up a little bit.” he said. The depiction of inaccurate safety protocols during sniper training, Kyle repeatedly using a satellite phone to call his wife during combat, and the compression of the timeline of Navy SEAL Ryan Job’s death were particularly disappointing to Legg.
In the film, Job (played by Jake McDorman) is shot in the head and survives just long enough to propose to his girlfriend before succumbing to his wounds. In reality, he recovered in Bethesda at the same time as Legg before going on to leave the Navy, attend college, begin a career, and marry before dying of complications from surgery three years after his injury.
Eastwood’s compression of time, space, and the nature of Kyle’s service in American Sniper has drawn scrutiny from the Washington Post, among others. The film’s emphasis on Kyle’s rivalry with an insurgent sniper named Mustafa – who may not have existed and only rated a single paragraph in Kyle’s memoir – is particularly notable. Directorial decisions, designed to streamline and dramatize, are common in films based on true events. Such decisions have also become increasingly contentious, embroiling fellow Best Picture-nominee Selma in controversy.
Garrett Berntsen, MA ’15, who served in the U.S. Army as a logistics officer for two tours in Afghanistan, feels that some of those decisions came at the expense of greater complexity in American Sniper. “My biggest criticism is the portrayal of the enemy,” he said. “You can portray them as bad without turning them into supervillains.” He also felt that it sometimes plays up the notion of special operators as invincible heroes, who are “never caught off guard” and operate alone – when in fact their work depends on well-functioning teams. Nonetheless, Berntsen stated that it accurately captures the motivations of young men and women who joined the military out of duty and patriotism after al Qaeda’s attacks against the United States.
Lieutenant Colonel David Berke, MIPP ’15, a Marine who deployed as a forward air controller in Ramadi in 2006 and served alongside Kyle’s team in support of two Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs) has not seen the film yet, but also sees why the film has resonated so strongly with American moviegoers.
“I think the public is still grasping to understand what we went through in these wars as a nation, and it tries to use books and movies to draw connection to help understand it as much they can,” he said. For his part, however, he prefers veterans’ memoirs, which are “more in the voice of the authors” and speak more directly to their individual perspectives on events.
Berke remains skeptical that a single book or film can fully capture the wars or the experiences of veterans. “It can’t be there to educate you on what happened. How can you learn enough in an hour and forty-five minutes about a conflict that’s gone on for more than a decade?” he stated, while noting that he does appreciate the films that make an effort to “create awareness of all of the other aspects of war beyond the kinetic aspects,” as American Sniper does in some scenes on Kyle’s family life and struggle to adjust to life at home.
The representation of that struggle is open to interpretation. While post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is never discussed explicitly in the film, it is heavily implied in several scenes of Kyle hearing phantom gunfire and responding to threats with excessive aggression. Legg finds that association to be inapt. “Somehow the film has brought PTSD into discussion, when I never saw it. Chris didn’t have PTSD,” but rather combat stress stemming from repeated deployments away from his family, he said. A large amount of PTSD, he thinks, stems from society failing to receive veterans with a proper understanding of what they went through and the intense responsibilities, bonds, and meaning they felt in the field. “In some ways, there is just nothing in polite society that that will satisfy a soldier the way the gravity and responsibility of combat does,” he said. According to Legg, veterans are all too often pathologized and treated like they are “somehow broken” because they served, when civilian society simply has trouble understanding and appreciating who they are and where they are coming from.
In many respects, American Sniper serves as a Rorschach test for how U.S. civilians understand the wars their country has fought and the larger-than-life figure of Chris Kyle. For SAIS’s veterans, that inkblot is more sharply defined but defies simple praise, criticism, or categorization.