Addressing the American Sniper Controversy

 /  Feb. 19, 2015, 7:16 p.m.

American Sniper

Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper has proven to be wildly successful, bringing in over $280 million in the United States alone. It is the third-highest grossing movie released in the US in 2014, and on February 22, it will contend for Academy Awards in six categories.

The film tells the story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in American history with 160 confirmed kills, and his experiences during four tours of duty in Iraq. Since its release, the film has unsurprisingly garnered a significant  amount of controversy and sparked great debate between the left and right wings of a country still grappling with the War on Terror.

On one side, liberals like Bill Maher argue that American Sniper discriminates against Muslims and depicts them in a negative light, while simultaneously glorifying the US invasion of Iraq. On the other side, conservatives like Representative Paul Gosar and Sarah Palin accuse liberal critics of “spitting on the graves of freedom fighters” and argue that the film simply tells the story of a man willing to put his life at risk to protect his country and its people.

However, saying that American Sniper advocates for either side’s position would be an injustice to the film, which cleverly and intentionally ignores this partisanship. It does not invest much in either the liberal or conservative view of the Iraq War. Rather, it shows how convoluted the war was and how much deeper one must delve in order to better understand it. In one review of the movie, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky of the A.V. Club said that “American Sniper is…ambivalent and complicated in ways that are uniquely Eastwoodian.” Some elements of the film point out the toll of war on both troops and citizens, as well as America’s growing discontent with the Iraq War; other elements of the film point out the evils that lurk abroad and threaten America’s security. While Clint Eastwood himself admittedly leans to the ideological right, this is not to say that the right wing’s interpretation of the movie is entirely correct.

For example, one argument among liberals is that the film depicts all followers of Islam as violent and wild people and glorifies the American campaign in Iraq. However, should one of these opponents of the movie take a look at its script, they would find no mention whatsoever of the word “Muslim,” because the film ultimately does not intend to make any statement about Muslims. Instead, American Sniper attempts to demonstrate the genuine evils among one group of people that are a very real threat to American security.

Admittedly, one legitimate critique the left wing makes is that due to the lack of context provided in the film, the public fails to see that Muslims in general are not the “bad guys.” Eastwood paints an “us versus them” picture without much regard to the events surrounding the Iraq War, a conflict far more complicated than this black-and-white story would suggest. Very few Muslims are intent on killing Americans, and the US rationale for invading Iraq was based on false information; however, Eastwood fails to acknowledge either of these fundamental truths in his story.

Furthermore, other critics like Garett Reppenhagen, who is a veteran himself, point out Kyle’s frequent referral to Iraqis as “savages.” However, this is an inaccurate observation. Kyle, both in his book and in the film, refers to his enemies, not Iraqis in general, as savages—specifically those who are bent on killing Americans simply because they are American. In two specific scenes from the movie, Eastwood shows that Kyle was reluctant to kill some of his targets whose intentions regarding terrorism were unclear. Regardless of what the real-life Chris Kyle may have been like, his portrayal by Bradley Cooper bears no hatred towards Iraqis. He does not enjoy killing his enemies so much as he enjoys saving the lives of his fellow Americans.

However, these counterarguments against the issues that the left wing has taken up with American Sniper should not imply that the movie aligns entirely with conservative views. Although Eastwood definitely leans towards the right and has supported the war in the past, his film does not necessarily embrace the American exceptionalism paradigm to which many right wing supporters of the film subscribe. In several parts of the movie, Eastwood shows the enormous toll that war has on  both civilians and soldiers, and he may even imply that this toll is unnecessary and could be avoided. For example, a large part of the film addresses Kyle’s relationship with his wife, Taya. Their marriage and family become immensely strained as the movie progresses and as Kyle spends an increasing amount of time in Iraq.

Another scene demonstrates American troops’ growing discontent with the war. In this particular scene, Kyle, who is about to embark on another tour in Iraq and is swelled with pride, meets his brother, who confesses, “I’m just tired, man. [Expletive] this place.” Eastwood draws a powerful contrast in this scene, successfully illustrating and distinguishing between the zealot and the disillusioned. Furthermore, the scene serves as a striking analogy to the situation American citizens face on the homefront. Ultimately, Eastwood implies that the United States’s War on Terror is not as simple and straightforward as Chris Kyle sees it.

Thus, Eastwood’s film ultimately serves neither the left nor the right wing’s view. Instead, it simply aims to show the impact of war on both the troops overseas and civilians back home, as well as to praise the country’s men and women in uniform who are willing to risk their lives to serve the United States.

Overall, American Sniper makes no statement that is especially politically charged about the War on Terror other than the fact that it deeply affects everyone involved. It leaves this important (and still extremely contentious) matter up for debate among the public. It strives to both continue and advance the dialogue among Americans on their country’s relationship with the Middle East. It memorializes an enduring issue in our country’s recent history from which many lessons can be learned for the future.

And in light of the enormous controversy the film has thus far ignited, it has clearly achieved those intended effects.


Jeffrey Chin