Last night I saw American Sniper. I recommend it. It’s a very straightforward telling of the story of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL who served four tours in Iraq, serving mainly as a sniper providing “overwatch” for Marines operating in the mean streets of places like Fallujah and Sadr City. Kyle was credited with 160 kills, an American record. (The all-time record is held by a Finn who killed over 500 Russians in a few weeks during the Russo-Finnish War of 1940.) This tally included a 2000+ yard shot, which is the sort-of climax of the movie. (Amazingly, he did this with a Macmillan Tac 338, rather than a 50 caliber Barrett.)
I say sort-of climax, because the movie doesn’t have the standard narrative arc. That reflects its hewing closely to Kyle’s life, and most lives aren’t like classic movie scripts.
Bradley Cooper does an excellent job at portraying Kyle. You can see interviews with Kyle on YouTube, and Cooper’s Kyle captures the real thing in appearance, voice, and mannerisms.
The movie is quite powerful, and the ending which uses film from Kyle’s funeral procession and memorial service in Cowboys Stadium is quite moving.
The best indicator of the impact of the movie is that when screen darkened and people were departing the theater, no one spoke a single word. I am not exaggerating: I did not hear anyone speak, and after noticing the silence I listened for voices, and heard none. People shuffled out in silence, as they might leaving a funeral of a friend struck down too young.*
Walking back from the theater, my mind flashed back to one of my favorite old movies, Sergeant York starring Gary Cooper. (And no, it wasn’t the common last name of the stars that brought that comparison to mind: I honestly didn’t notice that until just now.) There are some interesting comparisons and contrasts. Both Kyle and Alvin York were Southerners who grew up around firearms and hunting. Both were somewhat rambunctious as young men. Both were very patriotic. Both became celebrated war heroes, and of course, subjects of biopics.
There are of course substantial differences. York found religion, foreswore his previous wild ways, and became an ardent pacifist. He attempted to obtain an exemption from conscription as a conscientious objector, but as his sect was not recognized his request was rejected. Kyle, conversely, volunteered for a branch of the service most likely to see combat. York’s heroism was compressed into a few hours-a few minutes, really-on a single day in October, 1918: he killed as many as 28 Germans, with as many shots. Kyle served four long tours in Iraq, and his tally was spread out over nearly 1000 days.
The most striking similarity is how they justified killing. Here’s the dialog from Sergeant York:
Colonel: Of course, if you’d rather not tell me,why, it’s quite all right.
York: Well, I’m as much against killing as ever,sir. But it was this way, Colonel. When I started out I felt just like you said. But when I hear them machine guns a-going and all them fellows are dropping around me, I figured that them guns was killing hundreds, maybe thousands, and there weren’t nothing anybody could do, but to stop them guns.
And that’s what I done.
Colonel: You mean to tell me that you did it to save lives?
York: Yes, sir. That was why.
Colonel: Well, York, what you’ve just told me is the most extraordinary thing of all.
In American Sniper, Kyle says that he was killing to protect his comrades, and that the only thing that he regretted is the ones he couldn’t save. The psychologist to whom Kyle tells this is as surprised at this statement as York’s colonel was. (Other noted American snipers, such as Chuck Mawhinney and Carlos Hathcock, expressed similar views.)
A similarity in the movies is that both were nominated for Oscars as Best Picture, and both Coopers received nominations for Best Actor. Gary won in 1941, though the movie did not. It remains to be seen how Bradley and his movie do 74 years later.
That may have something to do with politics, and perhaps the most interesting contrast between Sergeant York and American Sniper relates to politics.
In some respects, there is a very strong political subtext to Sergeant York. When the movie was released, the US was very divided about whether to become involved in the World War that was then raging in Europe, and in China. There was a strong isolationist and pacifist streak in the nation, and although Roosevelt was nudge the country towards intervention, there was considerable opposition. Indeed, while Sergeant York was still in theaters, the House of Representatives extended conscription by the margin of a single vote. Viewed against that background, York can be seen as an allegorical figure: a committed pacifist who comes to recognize that killing is sometimes justified because it saves more lives, just as some were arguing that a peace loving US needed to intervene in the world conflict in order to save humanity from murderous regimes.
Even given this political subtext, the movie was not controversial. It was, in fact, wildly popular: it was the largest grossing film in 1941. Moreover, it did not generate any real political controversy. Indeed, its patriotic themes were widely praised. On December 7, 1941, it seemed prescient.
In contrast, Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is not avowedly political, but it has been the focus of intense political criticism, mostly from the left. Eastwood portrays Kyle like he was. Patriotic. An ardent supporter of the war in Iraq. A man who believed that the US was fighting evil there.
And all of that just won’t do, will it? Since all of these things are an anathema to the progressive left, they have subjected the movie to shrill criticism. The most absurd example of this being the “review” in The New Republic, which was written by someone who hadn’t seen the movie. (I refuse to link to such tripe: you can find it yourself if you want to read it.) Because, hey, who needs to see a movie to judge it, when its plot and its real life protagonist conflict with the accept progressive narrative, right? The most odious example is fittingly from that most odious of progs (quite a competition, that), Michael Moore, who tweeted that snipers are backshooting cowards. (Again, not linking. You’re own your own if you want to subject yourself to his bile.)
Kyle was the type of man who gives the left the vapors. He epitomized the people Obama belittled as “clinging to their guns and religion.” He was a Jacksonian par excellence, and any movie fairly portraying a Jacksonian is beyond the progressive pale. Such men are the true enemies of the progressive left, far more threatening than any jihadi/Salafist/Islamist terrorist, as Obama’s stubborn refusal to utter these words plainly reveals.
But the key thing to note is that Kyle stands out in the movie for his commitment to the war in Iraq: he is the exception, not the rule, among his comrades in arms. There is a scene where Kyle unexpectedly meets his brother, a Marine, on a tarmac in Iraq. His brother is going home after his combat tour, and makes it clear that he detested the war and wants to get far away from it as soon as possible: this leaves Kyle befuddled. One of Kyle’s comrades on several tours is killed, and at the funeral stateside his grieving mother reads his last letter, which is a cri du couer condemning the futility of the war. Kyle tells his wife that the letter killed his friend: he had lost his commitment to the cause, and it had killed him. Eastwood presents both sides and in this, and other parts of the movie, he conveys the grays of the war and the diverse responses of those who fought it. Which is utterly unacceptable to those who see it purely in black and black, and who can only conceive of Kyle as a blood-crazed psychopath.
This should not be surprising, as a recent speech by James Bowman indicates:
Miss Ryzik’s application [in a review of Zero Dark Thirty] of progressive historicism to movie criticism may at first seem just a little incongruous, but it shouldn’t. The politicization both of movie criticism and of the movies themselves has been progressing, too, for decades. Nowadays almost everything written about movies or popular culture by the scholars and academics paid to study such subjects by universities is so reliably progressive, as we now understand the term, that it will seem to ordinary readers already to come from the future. This impression is reinforced by the fact that it is written in a futuristic language only vaguely related to English, a language which is beginning to leave its impression on our own with words like Melena Ryzik’s “narrative” in place of an old-fashioned word like “movie.” She is far from being the only person to think nowadays that “narrative” sounds more intelligent and sophisticated than more concrete language.
We are seeing this in spades with American Sniper.
But this too is revealing: the disconnect between progressive opinion and the popularity of the film is telling. It cleared over $90 million over the weekend of its release, and with tomorrow being MLK holiday, the opening weekend take is likely to be on the order of $115-$120 million. As I noted, the movie clearly moved the audience, and I believe that this is because they admired him and were saddened by the closing scenes of his funeral procession, memorial service, and funeral. Perhaps saddened specifically by the knowledge that he was killed by an emotionally troubled veteran he was trying to help. The progressives may hate Chris Kyle and what he stands for, but apparently vast swathes of America don’t.
In his article on the Jacksonian tradition in American politics (linked above, and which is a must read), Walter Russell Mead notes:
Despite its undoubted limitations and liabilities, however, Jacksonian policy and politics are indispensable elements of American strength. Although Wilsonians, Jeffersonians and the more delicately constructed Hamiltonians do not like to admit it, every American school needs Jacksonians to get what it wants. If the American people had exhibited the fighting qualities of, say, the French in World War II, neither Hamiltonians, nor Jeffersonians nor Wilsonians would have had the opportunity to have much to do with shaping the postwar international order.
Two men portrayed by actors named Cooper nearly 75 years apart-Chris Kyle and Alvin York-personified what Mead writes. At times of trial, Jacksonian America has produced remarkable men who would be misfits in a faculty lounge or the halls of politics, but who make those things possible. They were rough men of a type that permit us to sleep in our beds at night because of their willingness-one reluctantly, one enthusiastically-to do violence on our behalf (to paraphrase the remark often attributed to Orwell). They are the kind of men whom progressives despise. Fortunately, however, it appears there plenty of Americans who think otherwise. Maybe there’s hope for us yet.
*Scott relates a similar experience in the comments. When I was waiting to get into the Rec center this morning, several students were talking about the film, and made the same observation. My daughter said that friends had told her the same thing. It’s a phenomenon.