American Sniper is easily the most authentic looking and sounding movie that Hollywood has made about American troops at war since Black Hawk Down.
You can tell within minutes of its beginning that the filmmakers cared to get the details right, that their military consultants weren’t the usual Vietnam veterans that the studios often turn to, and that Clint Eastwood and his team actually listened to what their advisers had say.
Troops “stack” correctly outside buildings before they charge in to clear them.
Army, Navy and Marine uniforms are in the correct camouflage pattern for each of the lead character’s deployments (the U.S. Army alone has changed pattern four times since 9/11).
Thanks to careful research by screenwriter Jason Hall, the language is up to date and sounds real: There are no anachronistic references to “FNGs,” “Spec 4s” or “foxholes,” no-one says “embrace the suck” and almost every phrase spoken by the troops on the ground rightly uses the f-word as an adjective or adverb.
Both background details and the course of the plot feel equally authentic. Soldiers chew tobacco. SF guys spend lots of time pumping iron. Elite troops who have been issued with satellite phones for work purposes only, habitually use them to call their families. No one runs off and finds himself alone in an Iraqi city or has no apparent chain of command as in The Hurt Locker.
And the Baghdad of the movie looks considerably more like the real city than the versions depicted in that movie or Generation Kill.
Moreover, the makers of American Sniper took care to capture some of the (fascinating) technical aspects of real-life sniping (unlike the team behind Jarhead, a lazy, smug film that foolishly and shamelessly borrowed tropes from Vietnam war films like Full Metal Jacket).
The movie gives you at least some sense of the extent to which a sniper’s talent and skills are about considerably more than mere coordination of hand and eye. They are mental and psychological: hence the yoga-style breathing techniques that snipers use to counteract adrenaline spikes and to slow their heartbeats. (Anyone interested in the art and science of sniping should read John Plaster’s classic book on the subject.)
American Sniper is also pretty accurate in its all-too-brief depiction of certain types of Post Traumatic Stress. In particular it gets right that aspect of PTS that is fed by regret and guilt at not being able to save comrades who were grievously wounded or killed. (Oddly enough it does not try to catch another aspect—one captured brilliantly by The Hurt Locker—namely, the overwhelming sense of anticlimax many soldiers feel on returning to a civilian existence unlikely to provide the intensity, camaraderie, and meaning that they felt while on deployment.)
None of this is to say that American Sniper is perfect as a depiction of real-life Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, as a depiction of the campaigns in which he took part, or as a depiction of the work of Special Forces. For one thing it weirdly shortchanges Kyle’s impressive commitment to helping other veterans with PTSD—Eastwood refers to it with just one brief scene featuring mutilated soldiers on a firing range.
For another, the movie unrealistically gives little sense of the Iraqi military role in the later years of the war and the extent to which U.S. units worked side by side with Iraqi forces. In a strong piece for the Guardian, one American veteran complained that the film makes the usual Hollywood error of depicting special forces troops as quasi-supermen. That seems an unfair charge, though the film does perhaps exaggerate the superiority of SEALs over ordinary Marine infantry, in particular in a sequence that shows Kyle teaching Marines the basics of clearing buildings.
Oddly enough Jason Hall’s version of Kyle makes the sniper rather more of an unthinking or intolerant patriot than he really was. In real life Kyle was a thoughtful man who apparently did not blame his fellow-sniper Mark Lee’s death on the latter’s disillusionment with the war as expressed in a letter read out at his funeral.
Even more significant, the film invents an incident in which Kyle has to shoot a child carrying a grenade. While Kyle did, according to his memoir, once have to shoot a woman with a grenade, he actually wrote in the book “I wasn’t going to kill a kid, innocent or not. I’d have to wait until the savage who put him up to it showed himself on the street.”
However, all that said, by the standards of Hollywood movies, American Sniper is all but unique in the way it combines effective storytelling with rigorous authenticity.
It may well be the former—the fact that the movie is so well-made and has been so popular—that has caused American Sniper to be the subject of much more ideologically-based criticism than either last year’s cruder Lone Survivor or Hurt Locker.
A considerable number of American commentators and Hollywood voices, not all of them as consistently foolish (or irrelevant) as the dishonest documentarian Michael Moore, have lambasted Sniper as jingoistic or propagandistic.
This may say more about the political culture in which those critics operate than the film. After all, in the U.K., liberal and left-leaning critics have tended to like the film and to see it as carrying a powerful anti-war message.
Much of the disapproving reaction to the film by the likes of New York magazine’s David Edelstein seems to have more to do with what the film does not show than what it does.
Most importantly, Eastwood’s movie does not depict American troops raping or murdering civilians, torturing prisoners, killing each other, or committing any obvious war crimes. This is of course a departure from movieland norm (as represented by Redacted, Stop-Loss, In the Valley of Elah, etc.) in which such things are presented as the norm. Nor are U.S. military personnel portrayed as valiant victims exploited and betrayed by a ruthless conspiracy of Washington chickenhawks, as in Green Zone.
It is true that the film makes no overt effort to show Iraqis in a positive light and doesn’t even feature any members of the Iraqi armed forces with whom hundreds of thousands of American troops routinely worked after 2004. Eastwood is clearly less interested in painting a representative picture of the real war than in crafting something akin to a Western, albeit a modern, revisionist Western in the tradition of his own Unforgiven.
On the other hand it is surely an exaggeration to argue that the Iraqis in the film are merely threats, targets and dangerous savages—even if the lead character does use that term.
The scenes in which Marines break into houses and terrify families make for very uncomfortable watching. They are clearly intended to evoke sympathy for the Iraqis, even those who are working with the insurgency. You’d have to be a fool not to see that Eastwood is, subtly or by implication, evoking the inherent brutality and cruelty of any occupation and counter-insurgency, no matter how well-intended or lawfully carried out.
Moreover the fictional Iraqi super-sniper against whom Kyle carries out a kind of duel is not depicted as especially evil or villainous: He’s just an enemy soldier doing his job extremely well.
On the other hand, the al Qaeda commander and his henchmen—who are based on real people—are depicted as men of astonishing cruelty and ruthlessness. They use the blackest methods of intimidation to compel civilians to support them; at one point you see a child murdered by electric drill in front of his father.
Unfortunately there is nothing exaggerated or untrue about this scene. AQ and its insurgent allies frequently did that kind of thing and worse.
If some critics are uncomfortable with or ignorant of that reality, or would just prefer a simple narrative in which Americans are murderous fascists and the insurgents are victims/good guys/Middle Eastern Minutemen, then it is surely they not Eastwood who have a taste for propaganda.
But it would be surely be more constructive for them to calm down and see American Sniper for what it is: an exciting, moving film based on one man’s rather unusual military career, one that also highlights the postwar difficulties faced by even the most fortunate, best-trained and most effective warriors.
Jonathan Foreman was an embedded war correspondent with U.S. forces in Iraq in 2003 and 2005.