"The first time you shoot someone, you get a little nervous. You think, can I really shoot this guy? Is it really okay? But after you kill your enemy, you see it’s okay. You say, Great. You do it again. And again. You do it so the enemy won’t kill you or your countrymen. You do it until there’s no one left for you to kill. That’s what war is." -- Chris Kyle's Autobiography, The American Sniper, January 2, 2013.
The movie, American Sniper, premiered on November 11, 2014, with a limited release on Christmas and a full release on January 16, 2015. It was an immediate box office hit, setting numerous box office records including the highest grossing war film ever in North America. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and Best Actor for Bradley Cooper who played Chris Kyle's role as the sniper. Several critics have proclaimed it Clint Eastwood's most successful film to date.
Movie goers and critics are highly divided in their opinions, many loving it and many hating it, a testament to the partisan division in our country. On the far right is the flag waving hyper-patriots that assign an almost exulted sainthood status to Chris Kyle, "the Legend" and his 160 sniper kills of Iraqi insurgents. On the left are those who see the movie as war propaganda...glorifying war and killing. Matt Taibbi, writing in Rolling Stone, was most cryptic in his condemnation: "Sniper is a movie whose politics are so ludicrous and idiotic that under normal circumstances it would be beneath criticism. The only thing that forces us to take it seriously is the extraordinary fact that an almost exactly similar worldview consumed the walnut-sized mind of the president who got us into the war in question."
Then there is Sarah Palin, who in responding to criticism of the movie by Michael Moore and others, wrote this Facebook post: "Hollywood leftists: while caressing shiny plastic trophies you exchange among one another while spitting on the graves of freedom fighters who allow you to do what you do, just realize the rest of America knows you're not fit to shine Chris Kyle's combat boots."
After watching the movie, I come down somewhere in the middle. I can certainly understand how the "God, country and family" theme appeals to Sarah Palin and her band of patriots. The Bible that Chris Kyle conspicuously carried around with him, and those big ominous looking rifles that are everywhere to be seen and affectionately held, strikes the right note with that part of the American public that adores their "God and guns". The film certainly captures the ugly side of the Iraq War with the killings of both Marine soldiers and Iraqi insurgents. It's the emotions of those suspenseful moments of Kyle sniping the bad guys, before and after he pulls the trigger, and captured up close by the camera, that sell the movie at the box office. Without the Eastwood magic of those tense shooting scenes, I doubt that the film would be such a box office hit. Perhaps it's an unpleasant view of the American psyche, but in Kyle words, "that's what war is," or at least as it appears through the lens of Clint Eastwood's camera. It sells.
I hadn't planned on watching the movie, but was curious about all the hype. In my younger days in the 1950s and 60s I watched lots of movies, but war movies were especially emotional to me with their sometimes intense scenes of shooting and killing. I applauded the good guys, and I loathed the bad guys. The good guys, the American soldiers and heroes, always won, which is good because at the end of the adrenaline rush of the show, my friends and I left the theater with a feeling of exhilaration ...as intended by the directors. The bad guys, however, lived on in my memory as bad guys. Overall the war movies made me feel good about America and the "just wars" we are fighting, often for God and country, freedom...and "to make the world safe for democracy", familiar words today, but first spoken so eloquently by Woodrow Wilson in his 1917 speech asking Congress to declare war on Germany. I didn't realize it at the time, but those movies fed my sense of patriotism, and in that regard they also served a propaganda need for our military engaging in war. The plots in those days were simplistic in life and action scenes, mostly good guys shooting bad guys, and delved little into the psychological complexities such as PTSD.
When it comes to making a movie about a real war hero, as opposed to a fictional character, the movie directors are challenged to put together a story script that accurately documents the hero's life, but is melodramatic enough to sell at the box office. "Selling at the box office" often wins out as script writers and directors rewrite and reconstruct events and embellish the central characters of the war. Such was the case for one of my war heroes that I watched in a rerun of a movie from the distant past, Sergeant York. Alvin York was a sharpshooter whose heroism on the battlefield earned him the Medal of Honor and the distinction of the most decorated soldier of World War I.
For those not familiar with the movie, it premiered on July 2, 1941, just five months prior to America's entry into World War II. Upon its full release, it became an immediate box office hit and was later nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture. Gary Cooper, playing the role of Alvin York, won the Oscar for the Best Actor. While the film was being made, World War II was already raging in Europe, and until 1941, America had steadfastly held onto its neutrality, even passing several neutrality acts in the 1930s. Sergeant York and other war movies at the time hit the right chord with the American psyche to help change that isolationist mood, even before the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 that ultimately brought us into that war. The American Film Institute ranked the movie 57th in its list of the 100 most inspirational American movies.
York's life story and heroism has "made for the movies" American appeal. He was the third of eleven children whose home was a humble two room log cabin in rural Tennessee. He lacked a formal education, was a good laborer, but also an excellent marksman with a rifle, a skill he acquired in shooting wild turkeys and other game for the family food. In his youth he had the reputation for drinking and bar brawling, but later found religion in a big way. He resisted being drafted into the army as a conscientious objector, but was drafted anyway, and soon found himself serving at the front lines of the World War I battles. In one of the most memorable scene from the movie, as York and his fellow soldiers were pinned down by the German soldiers in the trenches of the Argonne Forest in France, the onetime reluctant soldier was transformed into a feared sharpshooting warrior. As York's fellow soldiers were dying around him, an excerpt from his diary was captured in the action scene:
"I knowed that in order to shoot me the Germans would have to get their heads up to see where I was lying. And I knowed that my only chance was to keep their heads down. And I done done it. I covered their positions and let fly every time I seed anything to shoot at. Every time a head come up I done knocked it down. Then they would sorter stop for a moment and then another head would come up and I would knock it down, too. I was giving them the best I had." -- Alvin York's Diary (Sergeant York), October 8, 1918.
In part of that movie scene, Alvin York is shown making turkey gobbling sounds that got the German soldiers curious enough to raise their heads above the trenches, whereupon York shot them one by one...like a turkey shoot. The turkey gobbling noise made for good entertainment, and I remembered that scene for years because of it. However, much to my chagrin, I later learned it didn't happen that way. While that addition may seem innocent, it was just one of many fabrications by the movie's director, Howard Hawks, inserted to entertain and help sell the movie and to feel good about the hero. In Hawk's own words: "We threw away the written script and did what Jesse Lasky [producer] told us about the real Sergeant York. And the funny thing about it was that it turned out to be a hell of a picture...and we had no idea it was going to be anything like that."
Furthermore, the authenticity of York's own "diary account" of the war battles, written for him by Tom Skeyhill, is also being questioned. As the New York Times reports, "Sergeant York's published diary is actually a heavily embellished account written for magazine serialization in the 1920's with help from a flamboyant Australian soldier-poet named Tom Skeyhill, who was blinded earlier in the war." York's original real diary has never been made available to historians by the York family so it is not clear what it contains.
World War II ended in 1945, with a death toll of between 50 and 80 million people, of which 420,000 were Americans. Alvin York, the war hero and one time conscientious objector, continued his life by running a Bible school and helping charities, but also making speeches supporting war. He displayed little remorse over the Germans he killed in World War I, stating in 1919: "A higher power than man guided and watched over me and told me what to do." York was in poor health in his later years and died in 1964. Public buildings and streets have been named after him. In 2000, the US Postal Service honored him with a "Distinguished Soldier" stamp. Despite the inaccuracies in his story, he is true war hero deserving of his medals, and with the help of Hollywood is now a legend.
World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and more recently, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, all have their share of war heroes and the medal awards that go with heroism. The military supplies the soldier heroes and Hollywood makes the movies...a kind of symbiotic relationship that inevitably serves a propaganda need. For the unpopular Iraq War, it was especially difficult to sell a movie script of any kind because of the box office failures that preceded it. Kathryn Bigelow's Hurt Locker, released in America in 2009, is a movie about an American bomb squad defusing bombs (IEDs) in Iraq. It was highly acclaimed by critics receiving six Oscars including Best Picture, but was a major disappointment at the box office, holding the distinction of the lowest grossing film ever to win the Best Picture. My cynical view would say that the complicated plot lacked the requisite central theme of good guys shooting bad guys that appeals to the American psyche, something that Clint Eastwood understood very well in making American Sniper. And what is a hurt locker anyway?
Bradley Cooper's acting in American Sniper is superb. If, like his namesake Gary Cooper, he wins the best actor Oscar, I will be supportive. However, I don't think the film is "best picture" quality. Supporters tout how the movie brings home the hardships of civilian life for soldiers serving multiple deployments, including helping wounded warriors and those with PTSD. Yes that's true, but for me those many snippets of civilian life between deployments seemed disjointed and largely secondary to the central narrative of numerous heart thumping "looking through the sniper scope" rifle shots of Kyle killing insurgents, including an opening intense scene of him shooting a mother and child carrying an explosive device. That shocking scene of the killing of the child is a Clint Eastwood embellishment. Chris Kyle claims in his book that he never shot a child in his 255 kills (160 officially confirmed) and only one woman. He also didn't shoot his so called nemesis, the infamous Iraqi sniper, Mustafa, portrayed in the movie. First and foremost though, Eastwood remakes the character of Chris Kyle, the sniper who in real life showed little remorse about killing, into a sensitive soldier that struggles with the morality of killing.
The History versus Hollywood and Slate websites list several Eastwood embellishments of Kyle's life and action scenes in the movie. Those embellishments and untruths, reminiscent of Howard Hawk's embellishment of events in Sergeant York, helped make the movie a box office hit and now are cementing Kyle's legendary legacy with his supporters. With Kyle's tragic death at the hands of a fellow veteran suffering from PTSD, there are fewer critics now willing to challenge those inaccuracies.
In any case, much of the immediate box office success can be attributed to the legacy of Chris Kyle himself, documented in his own book entitled, American Sniper, The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, published on January 3rd, 2012, a year before his untimely death. With that eye catching title, sniper rifle and American flag on the cover, it was a best seller, spending 37 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list. The book, written for him by Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice, describes his life as a Navy Seal sniper during his four deployments in the Iraq war from 2003 to 2009. The Amazon reviews and accolades were overwhelmingly positive. "I am thankful for men like Chris and the service they freely give for God and country!" is a view expressed by many readers.
The book, like the movie that followed it, has not been without its criticism. One reader called Kyle a braggart, not worthy of the silent professionals of the Navy Seals. Another took issue with his dehumanizing of his enemy kills..."the savages". More disconcerting , though, the book contains fabricated stories. His shooting of two would be car hijackers in north Texas, and another about shooting 30 looters from the rooftop of the Superdome during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, have been fact checked by authorities who found no evidence to support the stories. These "fictions" call into question the accuracy about other aspects of his life, and perhaps like Alvin York's diary, are embellished to sell his book. In any case, the cold hearted Chris Kyle of his book that found "killing savages fun", will largely give way over time to Eastwood's remake of him into an American hero who embodies the necessary moral values that define a true patriot.
Four decades after Sergeant York was heralded at the box office, David D. Lee, in his 1985 book, Sergeant York, An American Hero, writes of the legend making of Alvin York (page 114):
"By 1941, then, the legend makers had completed their work. York was permanently established a national hero whose name was synonymous with patriotism, piety, and marksmanship. In the process, however, the human being himself -- his character, his beliefs, even the circumstances of his life were tailored to the purposes of the legend... They created a hero in response to a felt need in society, and Alvin York answered that need. His significance lies not in what he was but in what others wanted to make him. His willingness to submit to such a process was a greater service than the one he rendered in the Argonne forest."
Those words could also be ascribed to Navy Seal Chris Kyle, as we now witness first-hand the making of his legend. In the minds of his most ardent supporters who bought his book and watched the movie, perhaps his own words about his faith and the people he killed, better define how he will be remembered:
"I don’t spend a lot of time philosophizing about killing people. I have a clear conscience about my role in the war. I am a strong Christian. Not a perfect one — not close. But I strongly believe in God, Jesus, and the Bible...in that backroom or whatever it is when God confronts me with my sins, 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."
Rest in peace Chris Kyle, "The Legend", 1974-2013.