According to the US political right, Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in US military history was a hero and those who support his story as told in his autobiography and now film are true patriots.
According to the US political left, Kyle was a ‘murderer’ and those who support his version of events about his time in Iraq are redneck racists.
As ever, the truth lies somewhere in between.
And the US box office doesn’t care either way because it’s having the sort of field day in January that is normally reserved for the summer months when the big tent-pole superhero films are released.
Sniper is on target to become the most successful war film ever. It is the biggest hit of director Clint Eastwood’s long and enviable career. It has made $200 million in its first two weeks and is selling out cinemas across the USA in both red and blue states.
The film is proving such a cultural and box office phenomenon it has everyone from country music stars to Noam Chomsky debating its merits and flaws. Arab American groups claim the film has encouraged ‘a surge’ in online threats against Muslims while supporters claim there are at most a ‘handful’ of such threats and some of the accounts have been shown to be fake.
The American academy of motion picture arts and sciences (that’s the Oscars to you and me) has weighed in with 6 nominations for it in next month’s awards, including Best picture and best actor for Bradley Cooper.
So, is the film itself worthy of all the hype and hate?
As you might expect from a veteran film maker and still part time actor, Eastwood’ has produced a very assured piece of work which deftly mixes the horrors of the war zone with daily home life in the States.
Bradley Cooper, beefed up to convince as a navy seal, is excellent as Kyle, the wannabe cowboy whose patriotic anger at the attacks on his country leads him to join the military. Under tough supervision he hones the childhood skills taught to him by his father and becomes a marksman who over four tours of Iraq earns himself the title of ‘Legend’ from peers and ‘the devil of Ramadi’ from enemies.
There are moments to make a politically correct 2015 viewer wince. His frequent references to ‘savages’ as he goes about his deadly business grate. There are question marks over some of the killings.
However, when Clint Eastwood answers his critics and says this is an anti war film, it’s not hard to see his argument. Under all the talk of patriotism, duty, God, family and country and the undeniable skill of a sniper the film does not glorify war. The very real devastation it causes physically and psychologically to the soldiers and their families is not shied away from. However exciting the life of a sniper might appear to an impressionable young man watching this film, the brutal consequences of war are also there for him to consider.
So, was the real Chris Kyle a hero or just a knucklehead killer?
At this point I’m not sure it really matters. People can read his book and make up their own mind. The film is what the larger public will know and from the film it is now what Kyle represents to the many different people going to see it.
For many young men he represents action, adrenaline, excitement and yes, glory.
For many women who are responding to this film, he represents the Macho, masculine man who knew what he wanted and went for it, including the woman her pursued, married and remained devoted to.
For parents he is the man who lives up to the values instilled in him as a boy by his parents.
For older people and veterans he is someone who understood the old fashioned concepts of duty and service to country.
Then, beside these basic appeals are layers and layers of other reasons why they want to see the film.
There’s no doubt that some people in America are seeing this film for ‘political’ reasons but it’s too simplistic to dismiss it as just ‘a tea party member’s fantasy’ as some have dubbed it. The film is resonating with all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons and that’s what its critics don’t get.
While social media does not represent true public opinion, it is interesting to see the general trends. Those who are criticising the movie are very much on the back foot. The more livid they are at its success, the bigger it gets. The more they demand that their friends don’t go see it and they will ‘unfollow’ anyone who does, the more those friends ignore them and tweet/ comment about it. The rage against the film is impotent and powerless in the face of a juggernaut. It’s like trying to fight Bieber or One direction fans!
Go see the film and make up your own mind.