Do a quick Google search of “Michael Moore American Sniper Tweets” and you’ll instantly understand the dread I felt when sitting down to write this review.
Moore can be a compelling filmmaker at times, but he can also be the worst example of an internet troll. He chose the latter route when he tweeted that he was “taught that snipers are cowards.” Defending his remarks against a storm of criticism both online and off, Moore claims innocence by saying he was referring to the sniper that ended his uncle’s life in WWII, and because he never mentioned American Sniper by name. If you believe the offending tweet being sent out on the film’s opening weekend was just a crazy coincidence, you need to get your cynicism settings checked. He made the comments to enrage people, nothing more.
The Conservative Right’s to-the-death defense of Chris Kyle, the subject of American Sniper, and every service member as unquestionable heroes is as facile an argument as Moore’s tweets are rage trolling. Some soldiers are heroic, some commit crimes, some are average. Lumping them all into one category is simplistic. The film American Sniper isn’t quite as lacking in the nuance department as either of the examples above, but it is close. I won’t call the movie out and out propaganda for the American war effort in Iraq, but, again, it’s close.
There are two ways to look at the film.
The first is as the singular story of the deadliest sniper in American military history and his experiences in the so-called “War on Terror”. What did this war do to him? His family? Sitting in the theater, it’s very hard to deny how effective that story is. The battle scenes are magnificently shot, acted, and edited together. The first scene, wherein Kyle must decide whether or not to kill a woman and small boy who may be planning an attack on the unit he is there to protect, is an excellent example of the quality of storytelling on display. American Sniper is truly an “edge-of-your-seat” film. Yet, in the days following the screening, I read about the translation from true story to screen, and I started to understand the dishonesty of the endeavor that Michael Moore obnoxiously alluded to.
Not only are the events of Chris Kyle’s autobiography misrepresented, but Kyle himself was a known embellisher, a teller of tall tales. In addition to the experiences he recounts about his time in the military, Kyle also claimed to have beaten up former wrestler-turned-governor Jesse Ventura; used his sniper skills to pick off looters during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; and killed two carjackers even though no police report can verify it. In one of the final scenes of the film, Kyle states that he felt confident answering to the Almighty for every scoped shot he took as a sniper, but until then Kyle was portrayed as at least somewhat conflicted about his actions. In real life, Kyle was much more steadfast. Not only was he ok with every shot he took, he referred to the entire population of the Middle East as “savages” who deserved everything they got. Clint Eastwood, the iconic American actor turned director, conveniently ignores all this, in favor of representing Kyle as an honest, down to earth American hero.
The second angle to consider American Sniper from is its examination of the Iraq War. This is where Eastwood gets closer to the propagandizing his movie has been accused of committing. At no point is there any suggestion that the United States entered the Iraq War for anything other than noble intentions. Senior Bush Administration officials’ desire to remake the Middle East as they saw fit (as detailed in Jeremy Scahill’s excellent book Dirty Wars) is just one possible avenue of inquiry. Instead, it’s a very surface level examination that frankly does a disservice to the thousands of American troops and innocent Iraqi civilians who died (and continue to die) during and after the conflict. At one point during the film, a character even congratulates Kyle by saying, "Mission accomplished!" validating a famous Bush P.R. move.
One argument some might make to defend American Sniper is that Eastwood was not interested in that kind of examination. That would be a weak, lazy argument at best, and it would ignore past precedent. Eastwood has shown he has the wherewithal and interest in examining complicated political/wartime narratives as seen in his films Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, which examined both sides of the American-Japanese conflict in the Pacific during World War II.
In a flashback scene depicting his upbringing, Kyle’s father describes to his children his very black and white, easy morality. Regarding the world, he says, there are three kinds of people: wolves, sheep, and sheepdogs. This speech, extolling the virtues of simple-minded morality, is a good metaphor for the film as a whole. One is a simple idea; the other is a simple story. Both do an injustice to the complex circumstances that gave birth to each.