American Sniper keeps politics of Iraq war out of sights

Clint Eastwood’s movie about deadliest US sniper in Iraq has stirred an angry debate

The success of Clint Eastwood's new movie American Sniper at the US box office has reignited the political debate about the Iraq War.

The discussion is centred on the film’s depiction of the conflict, but also what’s not there: the false premise on which the Americans invaded Iraq and the complicated politics of the war.

The film tells the story of navy seal Chris Kyle, the Texas sharpshooter who became the most effective sniper in US military history with more than 160 confirmed "kills" out of what are likely to have been 255 kills during four tours in Iraq – a total of about 1,000 days.

Insurgents nicknamed him “al Shaitan” or “the Devil” for his killings during battles in Ramadi and Fallujah, and put a bounty on his head.

American audiences have lapped up the film, starring Bradley Cooper as Kyle. It made $107 million (€95 million) over the four-day public holiday weekend, making it the biggest weekend opening for a movie released in January. The film has been nominated for six Oscars including Best Picture, but notably not Best Director for Eastwood.

On the politics of the war, the film's focus is as narrow as the view on Kyle's sniper scope. It shows Kyle's journey from runaway rodeo cowboy to navy seal killer, a conversion prompted by his shock at the 1998 attacks on the US embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, but there is no examination of why Iraq was attacked.

The attention is on the dramatic life and death choices facing Kyle as he peers through his telescopic lens in day-to-day battles with an equally skilled adversary on the side of the Iraqi insurgents, an Olympic shooting champion from Syria named Mustafa.

The film is heavy on religion. “God, country, family” is proclaimed a number of times in the movie as the motivation to fight. Kyle carries a Bible while killing and shows regret only for the American lives he could not save.

Critics of the movie, based on Kyle’s best-selling memoir, see Eastwood’s paean to the sniper and his fellow soldiers as glorifying the violence of an indefensible war.

Propaganda

Some have mocked the film as conservative American propaganda directed by a man who backed Republican presidential candidate

Mitt Romney

and infamously lampooned President

Obama

with a bizarre routine talking to an empty chair at the party’s 2012 national convention.

Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore posted a message on Facebook in response to the film saying that his uncle was killed in World War Two by a Japanese sniper and that his father told him that "snipers are cowards – they don't believe in a fair fight."

Seth Rogen, the Hollywood comedy actor, joked on Twitter that Eastwood's movie reminded him of the fake Nazi propaganda film depicted in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds.

He drew angry responses from country music star Craig Morgan, musician Kid Rock and actor Dean Cain, a friend of Kyle best known for playing Superman in the television series Lois & Clark.

“Seth… I like your films, but right now, I wanna kick your ass,” Cain wrote on Twitter. “Chris is an American Hero. Period. Go to war. Then we’ll talk.”

Rogen backtracked, later apologising to anyone he offended, saying that he never intended to compare American Sniper to Nazi propaganda.

“My grandfather was a veteran,” he wrote. “My comment about the movie was not meant to have any political implications.”

Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate, attacked the Hollywood left, defending Cooper, Eastwood and Cain for "standing strong in the face of cowardly fire from their colleagues".

The movie doesn’t shy away from the horrific nature of the conflict but neither does it seek to understand the war beyond Kyle’s simple black and white viewpoint. The Iraqis at the end of his scope are “savages” and “evil”.

Not political

Cooper, a Democrat who helped make the film as a producer, has said that the movie was not intended to be political.

“If it’s not this movie, I hope to God another movie will come out where it will shed light on the fact of what servicemen and women have to go through, and that we need to pay attention to our vets. It doesn’t go farther than that,” he told the news website the Daily Beast.

After his tours of duty in Iraq, Kyle helped veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He was shot dead at a Texas gun range in February 2013 and a former marine, whose family said he had PTSD, has been charged with his killing.

That Eastwood chose not to depict the killing in his film suggests a reluctance to take on the irony of Kyle’s death – although it does show the impact on the sniper himself.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent