‘American Sniper’: The Fantasy That Fuels Its Popularity

Opinion: Film's slight portrayal of PTSD makes the war more palatable for viewers

American Sniper

As the continuing dominance of “American Sniper” at the box office shows, sometimes it pays to be polarizing. All the attention the Clint Eastwood film has drawn from figures as varied as Michael Moore, Bill Maher and John McCain is free promotion at its finest.

But watching the bigscreen adaptation of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle’s autobiography in its second week in theaters is probably a fundamentally different experience now that perceptions of the narrative are filtered through controversy. A mental checklist of the various criticisms that have been leveled at the film can be applied: Does Eastwood glorify the Iraq War? Did he demonize Muslims? Is there any moral ambiguity? Is the cinematic Chris Kyle too different from the real one?

None of these criticisms resonated much with me by the time the credits rolled. But one I hadn’t yet heard did, and it might explain just why “Sniper” has become as stunningly successful as it has.

True to his billing as the sniper with more “kills” than anyone else in U.S. military history, Kyle is depicted as a freakishly talented marksman who knows his way around a war zone. Bradley Cooper has gotten plenty of praise in the lead role, though it’s a little difficult to understand why: He portrays Kyle as a man of near-robotic demeanor. Matt Damon and Jeremy Renner did more emoting playing equally lethal but fictional automatons in the Jason Bourne movies than Cooper does playing a real person.

Particularly bizarre is the final five minutes of the movie, when Kyle returns home for good. At his wife’s prompting, he sees a shrink who puts him to work helping severely injured military vets, and voila: He is cured, shaking off his PTSD like it was a 24-hour flu.

It’s not as if “Sniper” makes Kyle seem entirely carefree. Perhaps the most brutal scenes in the movie aren’t even on the battlefield but back at home between tours of duty. At one point Kyle stares blankly at a TV set while sounds of gunfire ring in his ears though there isn’t a weapon in sight. In another scene, Kyle snaps at the sight of some roughhousing between a child and a dog at a backyard party, raising his hand to whip the poor creature right up until his wife intervenes.

But Cooper’s Kyle doesn’t deviate from the stoic dignity that seems more appropriate in Eastwood’s early Westerns. He never so much as sheds a tear, not to mention exhibit the wide range of symptoms typical to vets suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, from insomnia to drug abuse.

It’s entirely possible that there are PTSD sufferers who, as Kyle is depicted to be, simply retreat into their shells. But when that comes off as nothing more than steely resolve, it’s not an effective way to convey how awful his condition is.

It feels like Eastwood attempted to achieve two different creative goals in “Sniper”: heaping punishment on a noble hero to admire his endurance while illustrating the toll PTSD takes. But these are ultimately irreconcilable ideas; trauma negates nobility.

Playing his wife, Taya Kyle, Sienna Miller is the movie’s emotional center. She gets increasingly distraught as her husband slips deeper into a war-centric mindset he can’t turn off even in civilian mode. But we never really see Chris Kyle agonize over his growing disconnect with his wife. Kyle doesn’t have a problem insofar as his problem is really just that his wife has a problem with him.

By this point, the comments section below this article is probably already filling up with suggestions that I am projecting my own wussy ways onto a character who just happens to be the opposite of the pansy that I no doubt am. The real Chris Kyle may have very well been this superhuman soldier, but if he was, what is the point of telling this story?

Maybe because the reason “Sniper” is striking such a chord in the U.S. right now is that it sells us on a fantasy we want to hear instead of the more troubling truth we’d rather ignore. After many costly years of military intervention in Iraq that has left us little to show for our sacrifice given that the region is more unstable than ever, what better way to soothe a war-weary public than with a tale of a fighter who never seems to grow weary. Chris Kyle collectively relieves our anxiety about the damage done to so many of our young men and women over there by offering the example of a man who emerged miraculously unscathed.

But Kyle is far from emblematic of what war has wrought for most enlisted Americans. Just last week, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Army jointly revealed a disturbing new study that found veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were 41% to 61% more likely to commit suicide than the average population. After our country’s previous wars, veterans were actually statistically less likely to take their own lives than the average population.

It’s not like a nuanced cinematic treatment of PTSD is a far reach given how many movies have riffed on the subject, going all the way back to “The Deer Hunter.” But while “Sniper” should be commended for at least sensitizing people to the post-war plight of real veterans, it offers an unrealistic ideal to those who might be considering military careers.

As the audience learns via an end card at the close of the film, Kyle was shot and killed at the age of 41 by a fellow veteran, one far more disturbed than he was. By eliding what it might have otherwise depicted, “Sniper” seems to be sidestepping a cruel irony: Someone the movie portrays as not being particularly tormented by having to kill is murdered by someone else so tormented that it drove him to be a killer.