Since the film opened earlier this month, "American Sniper" has stirred up passionate responses from critics and supporters alike. What began as a surprise box-office hit, raking in $105 million its opening weekend, is now a flashpoint for conservative and liberal views of the Iraq war.
The movie follows the life of Chris Kyle – one of the deadliest snipers and a US Navy SEAL – and his deployment on four tours to Iraq. During this time, he was credited with 160 kills before he was honorably discharged in 2009 after 10 years of service. His 2012 memoir, also titled "American Sniper," bluntly illustrates the realities of war and the trauma experienced by many vets.
Why has the movie sparked so much debate?
Critics say the movie unashamedly glorifies war while also showing the deep disconnect between civilians and the military. Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone described the antagonist as a “killing machine with a heart of gold,” and questioned the accuracy of the simplified depiction of the Iraq war.
The really dangerous part of this film is that it turns into a referendum on the character of a single soldier. It's an unwinnable argument in either direction. We end up talking about Chris Kyle and his dilemmas, and not about the Rumsfelds and Cheneys and other officials up the chain who put Kyle and his high-powered rifle on rooftops in Iraq and asked him to shoot women and children.
After the film debuted, filmmaker Michael Moore aired his grievances with any sniper on Twitter, sparking even more controversy: “My uncle killed by sniper in WW2. We were taught snipers were cowards. Will shoot u in the back. Snipers aren’t heroes. And invaders r worse.”
But perhaps the voices who can shed the most light on this movie are those who have been on the battle field themselves. Many combat veterans have seen the movie, and while they agree or disagree with the portrayal to varying degrees, many argue that the film successfully accomplishes one goal: Giving vets an arena to talk about their own war experiences.
Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin spoke to People Magazine about her friendship with the real life Chris Kyle, and the impact he had on her son Track, who was deployed to Iraq in 2008.
"[My son Track] has met enough 'celebrities' to not be star struck, so when he said the most impressive opportunity [he’s] had over all these years was meeting Chris Kyle – and he's 'the one' Track really wanted to meet – that said it all,” Ms. Palin told People Magazine. “The only poster on his wall was Chris Kyle, even before Chris' horrific murder. And my son has the bumper sticker on his refrigerator, reading: 'God bless our troops. Especially our snipers.' He knows who deserves America's respect."
Variety.com reported that Jason Hall, the film’s screenwriter, has recieved over 250 Facebook friend requests from several generations of veterans and their families. According to Hall, some of the veterans felt trapped with their own experiences of war, and watching the film is what enabled them to finally begin those difficult conversations.
“It’s like ‘goal accomplished,’ in my mind,” Hall said, reported Variety.com. “People are talking about this. They are talking about this war. They are talking about these soldiers and who these guys really are. And the soldiers are talking about their experiences, sometimes for the first time.”
Colby Buzzell, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, published a piece on TheGuardian.com after its criticism compelled him to see the film – in spite of being advised by a mental health physician that veterans should not watch war movies. One of the criticisms of the film is the unvarnished violence, but Mr. Buzzell finds it difficult to understand how war is to be portrayed if not with violence.
“Kyle was a Navy SEAL – he didn’t enlist in the Peace Corps. What else do civilians think that combat soldiers to do?” Buzzell said in the article. “He followed the rules of engagement and, if anything, was a pretty squared away soldier – one I’d be honored to serve along side – and, if people think that the real Kyle was a monster for doing the job that our country sent him to do, then that must mean that they think I’m a monster as well.”
The difficulty is that war is more complex than any Hollywood film. Adrian Bonenberger, who was deployed twice to Afghanistan as an infantry officer, felt he was in the minority of veterans who was not impressed by the film. However, he said that while the film may not reflect the complexity of war, it is necessary for civilians to see war depicted, face its brutal reality, and honestly confront how the country handles its actions overseas.
“This awareness is urgently needed, much more so than any selfish personal desire for entertainment or enlightenment,” Mr. Bonenberger wrote in The Concourse. “If this film inspires conversations about cultural imperialism – and how simplistic and reductive philosophy, combined with exposure to violence and moral injury, can twist and distort a decent human being – so be it. Everyone should see this movie. But you shouldn't necessarily believe it.”