The pernicious propaganda of “American Sniper”

By Margaret Johnson

Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper,” the film that has grossed over $150 million in the box office and has already been nominated for “Best Picture” at the Academy Awards, has undoubtedly been receiving a great deal of attention from the media and audiences. The film attempts to depict the life of Chris Kyle, American hero and sniper, throughout his four tours of duty in Iraq. The film’s accuracy and intention, however, are questionable.

Considered as merely an entertainment film rather than an accurate portrayal of the life of Chris Kyle, the film meets all the criteria for a best-seller: a strong lead actor, action, romance and emotional depth.

However, by inaccurately depicting Kyle’s story, director Clint Eastwood constructs a story that incites such great nationalism within the audience to the extent that the film could be construed as American pro-war propaganda. In the context of this film, the line between entertainment and political opinion is so blurry that viewers will wonder if there is even a line at all.

Regardless of whether the movie’s intent was to provide a character study of a heroic soldier or to make a commentary on war, a political discussion on the portrayal of war is hard to avoid. In fact, the character study of a person such as Chris Kyle only serves to facilitate political conservatives’ support for the war in the Middle East.

By constructing a relatable character in the frame of a man who is devoted to the American cause as well as the protection of his family and loved ones, the audience cannot help but sympathize with the actions and views of this characterization of Chris Kyle.

However, as The Guardian’s Lindy West puts it, ”There is no room for the idea that Kyle might have been a good soldier but a bad guy; or a mediocre guy doing a difficult job badly; or a complex guy in a bad war who convinced himself he loved killing to cope with an impossible situation; or a straight-up serial killer exploiting an oppressive system that, yes, also employs lots of well-meaning, often impoverished, non-serial-killer people to do oppressive things over which they have no control.” The uni-dimensionality of Kyle’s character was molded to fit the into archetype of the American hero.

Was Eastwood’s Chris Kyle as sympathetic of a character as the real Chris Kyle was? His book, written prior to his death in 2013, provides disturbing insight into Kyle’s views, which were certainly downplayed in the movie.

“I loved what I did. I still do. If circumstances were different—if my family didn’t need me—I’d be back in a heartbeat. I’m not lying or exaggerating to say it was fun. I had the time of my life being a SEAL,” writes Kyle in his memoir.

This part of Kyle somehow didn’t make it on the screen. Kyle also writes, “I only wish I had killed more.” For a film that seeks to provide insight into the emotional torment of soldiers, the film is undermined by Kyle’s own statements, which seem devoid of that emotional torment.

The character of Chris Kyle is depicted as compassionate in the film. While the real Kyle may have bought into the idea that serving his country was his sole duty, many of the accounts from his book don’t support this depiction of Kyle.

For Kyle, it seemed that the protection of his country wasn’t the primary motivation for his killing. In his writing, he appears to have had a sick enjoyment for killing, saying, “Someone once asked me if I had a favorite distance. My answer was easy: the closer the better.” Bill Maher even referred to him as a “psychopath patriot,” and, while that may be an extreme title, there lies a bit of truth in Maher’s statement.

Was Kyle any less of an extremist than those he so fervently sought to annihilate? The American-centric view given by the film manipulates the viewer to think otherwise. But outside the film, Kyle was a different man.

Chris Kyle’s character was cleansed in order to appeal to the masses as a likable, though complex, man who was devoted to his family and country. But statements such as, “I’d drive a vehicle toward them and they would scream and bolt away … Their high-pitched screams, coupled with sprints in the opposite direction, had me doubled over. Cheap thrills in Iraq were priceless,” aren’t the words of the compassionate character Eastwood constructs, but rather the words of a sinister racist.

Apart from his duty in Iraq, Kyle still had a zealous passion for taking up arms. During interviews with the media, Kyle reported that he had traveled to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to shoot armed looters. He also claimed to have shot two robbers in Texas during an attempted carjacking. The local police allowed him to walk free. This isn’t the man the film illustrates.

As viewers of this film, it is critical to remember that the film is the reconstruction of a previous life and must be treated for what it truly is—a means of entertainment. By no means is the film accurate in depicting an unbiased opinion of war, nor is it completely accurate in depicting life of Chris Kyle.   If viewers keep in mind that the film delivers an inaccurate depiction of war and one of its soldiers, they are less susceptible to the nationalistic propaganda that has been put in front of them.