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The War at Home

American Sniper controversy in the crosshairs


The current debate, oftentimes bitter, zeroing in on American Sniper, is sadly lacking the most obvious question: Why haven't we seen more films examining the conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan--good ones, controversial ones or even mediocre ones? Hollywood executives have had their wake-up call by now: American Sniper is on target to become one of the most successful box office dramas in recent memory, and you can bet your boots that execs have green-lighted every script or treatise possible to tell more stories of the American veteran experience.

American Sniper's six Oscar nominations, including a much-coveted Best Picture nod, are all well-deserved and respected. The film's box office receipts are the real headline-grabber, though, turning a number of conventions inside-out: three weeks and counting at the top of North American ticket sales, the most successful Clint Eastwood-directed film to date, and the highest-grossing war-themed film ever, surpassing Saving Private Ryan and Pearl Harbor.

Having had some time to think about the film, which I admire, I see American Sniper as the Jackie Robinson of 21st century war films. It's not the first Iraq war-era movie to take the field. The Hurt Locker, a drama about bomb-defusing during the Iraq war, took home the 2009 Best Picture Oscar but was largely ignored by audiences—it grossed about $17 million in the United States, less than any other Best Picture winner in history. Worse, Iraq veterans and reporters who had been embedded in that conflict, pointed to the film's unrealistic dialogue and implausible scenarios, including obvious misfires such as soldiers wearing the wrong uniform. Conversely, American Sniper is the first of its genre to enter Hollywood's big leagues—as Boise Weekly was going to the press, the film had already grossed more than $300 million worldwide and inched its way up to become the sixth most successful film released in the past 365 days. There's every reason to believe it will continue to climb that ladder.

With an audience already in the tens of millions, controversy was certain to follow American Sniper, but the tenor of the criticism has been vitriolic. Things took a particularly nasty turn when a Jan. 6 headline in The Guardian read, "The real American Sniper was a hate-filled killer. Why are simplistic patriots treating him as a hero?" The Guardian's Lindy West went on to tag Chris Kyle, the U.S. Navy SEAL magnificently portrayed by Bradley Cooper, as "bare minimum, a racist who took pleasure in dehumanizing and killing brown people" and questioned whether director Eastwood was "responsible for validating racism, murder and dehumanization." Days later, liberal-leaning journalist Rania Khalek, who writes for Salon and The Nation, piled on, tweeting that Kyle was an "American psycho." I'm guessing by now you may have heard actor Seth Rogen, no stranger to controversy himself, comparing American Sniper to Nazi propaganda portrayed in Inglourious Basterds.

For the record, the Pentagon has credited Kyle with 160 confirmed kills. The record also reveals that in his co-authored autobiography, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, Kyle claimed that he punched former Navy SEAL and ex-Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura in the face. It never happened. In fact, a jury awarded Ventura more than a $500,000 in damages for defamation. Additionally, Kyle wrote in his autobiography that he had discovered "barrels of chemical material that was intended for use as biochemical weapons" in Iraq, a claim that was never proved.

However, I still recommend American Sniper as a cinematic experience. I hope you see it, debate its themes and cry your eyes out like millions of other moviegoers have. It's an exceptional piece of storytelling, highlighted by two of the finest performances of the award season: Cooper and the rarely-heralded Sienna Miller as Kyle's wife Taya. Like many, I question the prism American Sniper looks through but no more than I would question Selma, Lincoln, The Deer Hunter or any film directed by Oliver Stone. I respect them all, but I don't expect Hollywood to define my American experience. Inform? Yes. Influence? Sure. But American citizenship requires homework, and I prefer to do my own, thank you.

I love good movies, and American Sniper is a truly good movie. For the record, I'm certain that because Chris Kyle was such an adept killer, his aim saved the lives of countless United States servicemen and women. For that, I mourn his passing. Spoiler.