American Sniper has a problem. It's a movie about a black-and-white distinction between good and evil, but it is set almost entirely in the Iraq War, which can only be honestly portrayed in shades of gray.
Faced with a choice between altering its narrative to account for that gray versus altering the facts of history, the film chose the latter. It adopted an "honesty shmonesty" approach to the war: in its retelling, Iraq was a fight of Good Americans against Bad Terrorists, led by Chris Kyle, the Good-est American of them all.
The result is a sort of Hezbollah martyr video for the Fox News set; recruitment propaganda for culture-war extremists. In the world of this movie, the Iraq war is an extension of the war on terror; heroes with guns are our only hope of salvation; and anyone who doubts that is part of the problem. And if the film's historic box office success and many award nominations are anything to go by, that propaganda is frighteningly effective.
Warning: This article discusses the plot of American Sniper in its entirety.
A black and white war
The movie's central moral metaphor is voiced by Kyle's father during a flashback to his childhood. There are, he explains, three types of people in the world: wolves, sheep, and sheepdogs. The evil wolves threaten the sheep. The sheep are good people, but vulnerable to harm because they're too naive to understand that evil exists. That means that it's up to the sheepdogs to protect them from harm.
In that metaphor, Kyle is America's border collie, shepherding the weak and vulnerable away from harm. The movie's Big Bad Wolves are al-Qaeda terrorists, led by a psychopathic child-torturer and his marksman sidekick.
And the sheep? They would be the other Americans who lack Chris Kyle's vision and fortitude, and fail to understand that you're either with us or against us. That includes fellow US troops who lack Kyle's skill, or who dare to question the war. Iraqis, by contrast, are not sheep: in this movie they're either wolves themselves, or nameless collateral damage. Mostly wolves, though.
The movie's "wolf" problem
American Sniper stacks its narrative deck, using imaginary history and characters to give Kyle a suitably evil foe to fight. While it's never great to see a movie falsify a true story, American Sniper's disdainful attitude towards the truth is especially disingenuous in light of its broader "you're either with us, or you're a naive sheep" narrative.
To maximize the bigness and badness of its available wolves, American Sniper rewrites history, turning the Iraq War into a response to the attacks of September 11, 2001.
The film finds time for entire scenes of Kyle viewing TV news reports about al-Qaeda's 1998 bombings of US embassies, and the planes hitting the Twin Towers on 9/11. And when Kyle gets to Iraq, his commander explains that they are hunting the leaders of al-Qaeda in Iraq. The inference we're supposed to gather is clear: that Kyle is fighting the same people who attacked America in 1998 and 2001.
By contrast, the actual reasons for the Iraq war go unmentioned. The words "Saddam Hussein" are never uttered in the movie. Nor are "George Bush," "Sunni," "Shia," or "weapons of mass destruction."
As Zack Beauchamp points out, this depiction of the war is breathtakingly dishonest. The Iraq War was not a response to 9/11: this was a war America chose, officially based on reports of weapons of mass destruction that were implausible at the time, and that have since been proven false.
In real life, Chris Kyle argued that America owed its troops support because those troops did not get to choose the wars they fought, or the strategy they followed: they wrote the government a blank check for their lives and waited to see if it would get cashed. There's a very interesting movie to be made about that idea, and about what it means to be heroic during a misguided war. American Sniper isn't it.
Instead, the film heightens the good-vs-evil stakes by supplying Kyle with two fictionalized enemies: "The Butcher," an al-Qaeda in Iraq enforcer famed for his brutality, and "Mustafa," a Syrian who once won Olympic medals for marksmanship, but now spends his days as an al-Qaeda sniper, picking off American soldiers as they go about their noble work.
The Butcher is evil personified. He uses a power drill to torture a child to death in front of his screaming family. His workshop in a disused restaurant looks like the set for a cooking show hosted by Hannibal Lecter: a chained, mangled corpse dangles from the kitchen ceiling, and larder shelves are piled with dismembered body parts.
Mustafa, on the other hand, is Bizarro Chris Kyle. He's equally skilled with a rifle, but instead of heroically protecting American troops, he's picking them off, one by one. You know, evilly.
The movie's "sheep" problem
The movie's "sheep" problem is equally disturbing. The sheep are not the Iraqi civilians terrorized by the Butcher. With the exception of one murdered child and his payoff-demanding father, the Iraqis in the film are pretty much all terrorists or terrorist sympathizers. Rather, the sheep Kyle protects are the other American soldiers. For a movie that's been lauded for its support of the troops, that's a surprisingly disdainful view of their bravery and skill.
In the movie's telling, ordinary soldiers' lack of SEAL training makes them sitting ducks (sitting sheep?) for insurgent attacks. At one point, Kyle leaves his sniper's perch to lead a group of Marines as they clear buildings in Fallujah, telling the awed soldiers, who burst with gratitude that the hero Chris Kyle has deigned to join them, that he can show them a thing or two. Even Kyle's own brother is given sheep status: when he deploys with the Marines, it's cause for family concern, not celebration of his heroism. And when Kyle sees him later on an Iraqi airstrip, he's shaking with exhaustion from battlefield trauma.
A different movie might have acknowledged that those soldiers were, in many ways, more heroic than Kyle. They took greater risks with less training, and many of them lost their lives in battle as a result. American Sniper, on the other hand, presents them as an undifferentiated mass of grunts, waiting for Chris Kyle to save them.
Worse, the movie's sheep-wolves-sheepdog narrative implicitly blames them for their own peril. The "sheep" are in danger because they are too naive to understand the evil in the world, not just because they are under-trained or under-resourced.
The movie is very clear on that point. In a scene depicting the funeral of Marc Lee, Kyle's friend and fellow SEAL who was killed in action, his mother reads a moving letter Lee wrote a few weeks before his death, in which he questions the legitimacy of wartime glory, and worries that it can lead to an "unjustified crusade." It seems, for a moment, like the film might be attempting to grapple with the justness of the war itself, or at least consider the possibility that a person could be both heroic as an individual, and ambivalent about the greater mission.
Instead, the following scene features an angry rant from Kyle, who insists that "that letter" killed Marc, not the bullet that hit him. In the world of American Sniper, doubting your role as champion of good and enemy of evil is a fatal condition.
The "sheepdog" problem
That with-us-or against us construction is a problem, because the movie isn't just selling a vision of the Iraq War, it's selling a vision of violence as the only effective resistance to the forces of evil.
In the movie, Kyle is infallible. We never once see him shoot a civilian who he mistakes for a combatant. When another soldier tells him that the wife of one of Kyle's "kills" claims he was carrying a Koran, not a gun, Kyle dismisses his concerns by saying "I don't know what a Koran looks like," before describing in detail the exact type of gun the man was holding.
When Kyle shoots a young child and a woman in an early scene, the film is careful to show the grenade they were carrying exploding, leaving no doubt that Kyle was correct about the danger they posed to nearby American troops. In a climactic scene, when Kyle disobeys an order to hold his fire and nearly gets his entire team killed, the movie still eventually validates his decision: he kills the bad guy, and all the good guys survive unharmed.
That reinforces the movie's construct of good vs. evil — sheep vs. wolves. Because Kyle is always right, any limits on his use of violence would, by definition, leave American soldiers in danger. That's something only a naive sheep could want.
But pretending that heroic sheepdog warriors never accidentally kill civilians is a dangerous lie about the true nature of combat. In the real world, even well-intentioned soldiers do sometimes kill innocent people, because that is how war works.
Pretending otherwise is an insult to the many American veterans who have to spend the rest of their lives grappling with their actions during the Iraq War, and to the thousands of innocent Iraqis who have been killed since the conflict began. And it's also dangerous, because it tells Americans not to worry about the harm our wars may do to civilians, who are probably all terrorists anyway. It's bad enough to hide that truth behind euphemisms like "collateral damage," but much worse to write it out of the story completely.
The result: recruitment propaganda for an imaginary war
Given all of that, it is hardly surprising that many viewers appear to have absorbed American Sniper's message as "Muslims are evil and should be killed."
It would be bad enough if this were merely a shockingly inaccurate portrayal of the Iraq War and an appallingly insulting one of Iraqis themselves. But it's worse, because this movie feeds the narrative that the civilized world is at war with Muslims, that the only solution is to respond with crushing violence, and that people who refuse to believe that are naïfs — sheep, rather — who are dangerously undermining America's security.
That's not a story that's limited to Clint-Eastwood-directed warsploitation movies. You'll hear the same thing on Fox News, where this month Jeanine Pirro delivered a bloodthirsty rant calling for mass murder as a solution to the problem of Muslim extremism, and the network repeatedly made the false claim that radical Islamists had taken over parts of European cities, turning them into Muslim-only "no-go" zones.
That's its own form of dangerous extremism. Its premises are wrong, and its results are dangerous. By feeding that narrative, American Sniper is part of the problem.