Shoot first, ask questions later: The criticism behind ‘American Sniper’

“American Sniper” was nominated for an Oscar for best picture. Actor Bradley Cooper played Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in American military history. (Warner Bros. Pictures | AP)
“American Sniper” was nominated for an Oscar for best picture. Actor Bradley Cooper played Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in American military history. (Warner Bros. Pictures | AP)

In his New York Times review, critic A.O. Scott concluded “American Sniper” is ultimately, “just a movie.” This seems to have been forgotten in the media clamor following its release. Unfavorable excerpts from the memoir of the real-life American sniper, Chris Kyle, casted doubt over his character, portrayed diligently by a hulking Bradley Cooper, while allegations of increased anti-Muslim threats have consistently pointed to “American Sniper,” citing its negative portrayal of the people of Iraq.

Last weekend, the number and strength of anti-Muslim messages connected with the film forced the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) to call on director Clint Eastwood as well as producer and actor Bradley Cooper to publicly speak out against the hate, according to the BBC. At this point, the movie has ascended past the realm of film criticism, no longer a film but a cultural phenomenon, and that it has achieved this status is the real issue.

Those who are quick to defend the politics and ethics of “American Sniper” are giving these elements more due consideration than the filmmakers bothered to. Ultimately, it is “American Sniper’s” own failure to contribute anything definitive to the discussion it provokes that renders it well-intentioned but sloppy and, ultimately, irresponsible.

One of the earliest scenes in the film lays out the contentious principle that defines the film’s sense of morality and Kyle’s personal philosophy as a soldier. Over breakfast, Kyle’s father firmly tells his young sons that in the world of good people — which he refers to as sheep — and evil people — wolves — it is a rare person who is a “sheepdog”— that is, the defender of the weak, innocent sheep against the big, bad wolves.

It is not the worst analogy for a father to use to teach his boys a rudimentary moral precept, but the film truly takes it to heart, and the result is a vastly oversimplified depiction of the war on terror. Unless the face in Kyle’s scope belongs to a woman or child, our narrative completely fails to question the morality of its own violence, which is an unforgivable oversight with a topic as divisive as the conflict in the              Middle East.

As Dennis Jett, an American diplomat and academic, posited in a crucial New Republic article, the film avoids questioning in any significant way the morality of the actions of men like Kyle simply “because many Americans are unable to accept that nothing was won in Iraq, and that the sacrifices Kyle and others made were not worth it.”

The film boldly assumes that what was enough to drive Kyle to enlist should be enough for the audience to unconditionally support him by giving him the benefit of the doubt at every kill. In the case of many Americans, however, this tactic backfires, simply recalling the worst parts of a war that they rejected when it was a reality — why should they accept it now?

In pre-production meetings with Eastwood and Cooper, Kyle’s real-life father reportedly threatened to “unleash hell” if his son’s legacy was disrespected, and the controversy surrounding the movie seems to ultimately stem from weaknesses this agreement cultivated.

The decision to characterize Kyle as the quintessential soldier stripped him of the traits that defined him in the first place. His memoirs revealed a self-confidence and bravado absent in the film. The complete justification of his character shows the filmmakers passing up a truly nuanced ethical conflict, one that would be artistically challenging, that of the fiercely loyal soldier and questionable mission.

The result is “American Sniper,” a film too shortsighted to make a statement and too clueless to understand why that is a problem.