(Note: This article contains major spoilers.)
Everyone is describing the same scene: The theater is completely silent. No applause, no talking. Moviegoers file out quietly and respectfully as the credits roll and images from the 2013 funeral of U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle flash across the screen.
I shared this experience last weekend after seeing Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper.” At the time I had little idea it would break so many records for a January release, racking up over $90 million in the space of three days and garnering six Academy Award nominations. What was clear to me as I exited the theater, surrounded by a quietly shuffling crowd, was that this film does more than tell the story of the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history. It prompts questions about the nature of war and its cost for those on the front lines and on the home front. And perhaps more importantly, it prompts conservatives, especially those who claim the name of Jesus, to come to grips with some of our fantasies about the military, America, and the God in whom we trust.
Chris Kyle, the main character (ably played by Bradley Cooper) needs no introduction. Widely known as “the Legend” in the field, Kyle was credited by the Navy with 160 kills—more than any other sniper in American history. And during his four tours of duty, he inspired sorely needed morale for those risking their lives in our nation’s most controversial engagement since Vietnam.
He became just as much of a legend stateside. Hulking and bearded, intoning his few words with a Texas drawl, and scarcely ever photographed without a flag or his rifle, he was the quintessential American hero. And his loving wife and two children no doubt agreed, though they understandably hated his absence.
Eastwood’s portrayal of Kyle’s life fits well with what the SEAL reveals about himself in his autobiography. A Texan whose father taught him how to shoot and hunt no sooner than he’d learned to ride a bike, Kyle grew up believing that only three sorts of people exist: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. And he knew from an early age which he was. His deep protectiveness and unflinching confidence in the justice of his cause serve Kyle well later in Eastwood’s film, when the sniper assures a Veterans Affairs counselor, “I will answer to God for every shot I took.”
Throughout the film, of course, looms the ending we already know. Not long after overcoming his own survivor’s guilt, Kyle is shot and killed by a fellow veteran and post-traumatic stress sufferer—a man whom he had been trying to help.
Having survived countless hours of combat with a price on his head on some of the Iraq war’s hottest fronts, it was cruelly ironic that the Legend met his end in civilian clothes. And amid the shock of Kyle’s murder, that irony got the better of former Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who sparked outrage when he tweeted Jesus’ words from Matthew 26:53: “He who lives by the sword dies by the sword.”
Kyle would no doubt have resented Representative Paul implying he caused his own death. But he probably wouldn’t have minded being compared with Simon Peter, Jesus’ overprotective disciple who lopped off ears at the first sign of trouble. By his own account, Kyle did much the same, claiming a personal kill tally nearly twice what the Navy confirms. At least once he was investigated for shooting Iraqi motorists he deemed suspicious. He makes no bones about having gunned down women and children to prevent suicide attacks. And in his autobiography he tells far-fetched tales of brawling with celebrities at bars and taking his rifle to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to pick off looters from the Superdome.
Whether true or not, these stories illustrate how comfortable Kyle was with his reputation as a steady-handed killer—even a vigilante. He and his platoon actually adopted the skull symbol of “The Punisher,” a vengeful Marvel character who makes his own justice, as their unofficial insignia. But his self-image as the incorruptible good-guy was rooted in more than comic books.
“When God confronts me with my sins,” writes Kyle in his autobiography, “I do not believe any of the kills I had during the war will be among them. Everyone I shot was evil. I had good cause on every shot. They all deserved to die.”
The SEAL regularly carried a Bible with him into combat, though he admitted he rarely read it. “God, country, family—in that order,” he says in the film. And in every respect Cooper’s character and the real Kyle embody the conception many Americans—especially conservatives—have of goodness.
Country singer Toby Keith helpfully summed up this flavor of Americanism in his chart-topper “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue,” a response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks: “We’ll put a boot in your a**, it’s the American way!” he sings, summing up how many in the United States feel not only about Al Qaeda, but about the Muslim world in general. “Just nuke ’em all” is an all-too-common refrain after beers have loosened patriotic tongues. “Put the fear of God in ’em,” says one character in the film. And this pseudo-Christian attitude shows up in the real Legend’s autobiography:
“I hated the damn savages I’d been fighting,” Kyle writes. “I never once fought for the Iraqis. I could give a flying f**k about them.”
But in Eastwood’s retelling, the unopened Bible Kyle carries like a talisman does little to ward off the effects of combat. He’s haunted by insurgents’ atrocities (in one scene a young boy is murdered with an electric drill, and in another U.S. troops discover a torture chamber filled with body parts). He’s also dogged by the faces of marines and fellow SEALs he couldn’t save, all of whom he considered brothers. Despite his “taking out” some opponents from over 2,000 yards away, the grisly realities of the battlefield take their toll on Kyle, leaving him jumpy and distant at home and increasingly reckless on duty.
His nemesis, a former Syrian Olympian and sniper with skill to rival his own, takes advantage of any weakness he senses, shooting at Kyle and felling his friends and platoon-mates at every chance. Between tours, Kyle’s wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), anguishes over the changes she sees in her husband, begging him to pass his duty to someone else.
“You can only circle the flame for so long,” she warns, and even questions why American soldiers must spend their blood in Iraq.
In the end, these questions about war and honest portrayals of the cost of military service are what make Eastwood’s film so potent. And despite gripping performances from every cast member, white-knuckle pacing, and seamless on-location effects, it’s the true-to-life picture of a warrior’s and nation’s struggle with right and wrong that make it a masterpiece. Clint Eastwood may have holstered his acting career, but he’s shooting straighter than ever from the director’s chair. And ultimately his refusal to settle for easy answers did more justice to Chris Kyle and our men and women in uniform than any tidy, patriotic war hero movie would.
“American Sniper” is rated R for a steady drumbeat of f-bombs, for intense, graphic violence, and for sending Michael Moore into a hissy fit. It’s an outstanding, respectful, deeply challenging film that shatters the simplistic way many Americans—even Christians—look at war. It’s not an easy watch. It’s the sort of thing that hits you right between the eyes. But we need one of those films every so often to shoot down our easy answers and leave us shuffling out silently.
Image copyright Warner Bros. Pictures.
G. Shane Morris is assistant editor for BreakPoint Radio.