Saturday, January 24, 2015

American Sniper: What it was and what it should have been.

If I haven't said it enough, I'm a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. I've been in the Army Reserves for fifteen years working as a Public Affairs Specialist. Basically, I do all kinds of things media and public relations related for the Army, and I like to think I'm pretty good at it. Here's a basic job description.

I've worked with every branch of the US military, including many people from other countries. I've worked with Polish, French, British, Iraqi and Afghan forces with a smattering of Aussies and New Zelanders, which you don't want to joke about flags with.

Gratuitous bad-ass soldier picture
If you're insane enough to spend time on Twitter, you'll see people swinging hard to one side or the other about the Clint Eastwood directed movie American Sniper. Some people hail it as the greatest thing since America decided to step on the neck of the Iraqi government. Others spit in disgust at another war propaganda movie churned out by Hollywood, glorifying racism and the killing of brown people.

There's also quite a bit of anger toward Chris Kyle, the main character the movie is based off because his book shows him to be either a liar or insane. In his book, he claims to have killed two hispanic men who were trying to rob him at a gas station (unconfirmed, denied by police and the gas station owner) as well as looters in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (Also unconfirmed and denied).

I haven't read his book and we can't ask for his clarification as he was murdered by a fellow veteran at a gun range. I doubt parts of his story are true, and the excerpts I've read make him sound like an asshole, which is very possible considering some of the Soldiers I've met over the years. Plenty of Soldiers are lying assholes.

So I want to walk into this movie without any of that. I watched the movie Saturday morning over coffee and pushed any preconceptions I've read about out of my mind. Too often we walk into media, especially something as polarizing as a movie about the war in Iraq, already deciding what we feel about it. And since I have the unique position of approaching things from the outside as a journalist, coupled with my experiences overseas, I felt I could try to truly absorb this film.

American Sniper: Takes on the Movie itself

Bradley Cooper plays Chris Kyle who is about the most stereotypical Texas service member one could be. He drinks Budweiser, dips, rides horses and does rodeo riding. He comes home to his girlfriend banging some other dude, kicks her out, sees a terrorist attack on TV and decides to become a Navy Seal.

I'll be honest, this origin story didn't fill me with much hope for the movie. Since I didn't read the book, I don't know the particulars of Kyle's decision to join, but Cooper just belts off "I just wanna serve my country and kill some bad guys" in a Texas drawl that nearly triggered my PTSD. We then are treated to about a five minute montage of Navy BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolitions/SEAL) where Kyle is cold, does pushups, meets his future wife in a bar and trots off to Sniper school. Kyle says more things about serving his country, 9/11 happens and he's off to his first deployment to Iraq, which of course had nothing to do with 9/11, but we need to drum up some insurgent hatred.

I have planty of issues with this movie. Kyle seems to only call his wife right when there's about to be some major firefight. In fact, he actually calls her at one point saying he's ready to come home after giving away his position and getting swarmed by insurgents. 

Also, there are no good Iraqis unless you count the interperter who really doesn't do much to make you like or dislike him. There are bad guys and civilians who get killed. Hell, the bad guys even torture and kill a kid, but the impact is kind of lost. He was tortured and killed because Kyle and his squad busted in on some guy's house and forced him to give up the same of an Iraqi counter sniper, but wasn't exactly being forthcoming about it. 

Then of course my pedantic assholishness of complaining that the tank engines don't sound right, but that's just me being a Soldier and watching a war movie. Don't even get me started on Hurt Locker

The movie is OK at best. Most of the battles took place either in the dark or during a massive sand storm, and there is no real climax to the movie. He kills the counter sniper when there's still about thirty minutes left in the movie, which would be fine if they weren't trying to use it as a plot hook. I feel movies like Forrest Gump and There Will be Blood have taught us movies don't have to have a central plot if you're making a character driven story. Eastwood could have made the story about Kyle and ditched most of the source material (Lord knows they left out Kyle looting the homes of Iraqi civilians). 

Instead, we got a movie that never really had a solid point other than "War is bad, I guess." Nothing about it seems...solid? I suppose that's what I'm getting at. It just sort of bumbles back and forth and I don't know what to focus on

The War at Home: What American Sniper Got Right

Let me tell you a little about myself. After my deployments, I suffered some mild PTSD. I was never given any medication for it, but it took a few years before I could enjoy 4th of July fireworks again. To this day, I occasionally have nightmares about Iraq and Afghanistan and I have a heightened sense of awareness at all times, which I've thankfully been able to channel pretty well and not freak out about every little thing.

The worst part of it was feeling like I didn't deserve PTSD. I wasn't in any major firefights, but I had been rocked by an explosion or two. It's really hard to talk to friends who seem to be holding themselves together who have experienced more trauma in a day than I did in two years.

I tell you this because for every fault that American Sniper had, it handled PTSD very well. It didn't gloss over it or put it in the background. In one scene, Cooper is sitting in a chair in his living room while you hear the sounds of battle playing as if on TV. As the camera pans around, you are shown that the TV isn't on. Many times I've found myself just staring off into the distance, not really focusing on anything and just remembering bits and pieces. Some good and some bad.

Cooper, as well as Sienna Miller (Who should have gotten a nod for supporting actress) show a part of the war that is not talked about outside of military communities and an occasional five minute spot on CNN or Fox. Kyle keeps going overseas because he wants to protect his people, but as a Soldier who's done it, a big part wants to go back for a different reason.

I don't want to go back to Iraq or Afghanistan, but I do.

I really, really want to go back.

Deployments are easy. There's no bullshit of the regular world, just your job. Just feeling like you're a part of something. Every person who's gone overseas has a different experience. I witnessed a lot of good being done for the people of Iraq from the local and American government. Rebuilding infrastructure, bringing back power and stability. It's not going to happen in a day or even a year, but I do feel I, and many others, did good. 

The war to me wasn't what you watched on TV or read in Slate articles. It was the kids who got to go to school that day. It was the thousands of locals we employed to rebuild and maintain. For every person who wanted to kill you, there were ten more who were glad you were there, and a hundred more who were just regular people trying to get by.

And then there are times when it just feels absolutely hopeless. That nothing you did mattered or ever would matter to anyone. 

Couple this with the American Government and Veterans Administration being absolutely inept at getting help to people who need it, and you just wonder if all the jingoistic dick waving is anything other than lip service from people who are just uncomfortable in your presence because they don't know. 

Before I was married, my wife and I started talking when I was on my mid tour leave and kept chatting when I went back to Iraq. I had been dumped about four months in and she was my absolute rock when I came home.

She didn't watch the movie with me, but when I was talking about it to her, she remarked that it's a wonder we stayed together when I came home because I was an absolute asshole. No one should have been putting up with me. But she stuck through it and helped me out because no one else knew how. Hell, she didn't either, but she made the effort. Most of the connections I made while overseas vanished as soon as I was no longer an instant message. As soon as I became tangible, I was someone they didn't understand. Someone who drank too much, who told fucked up stories and who was broken.

Sienna Miller (Kyle's wife) reminded me of what my wife probably went though, and still goes through today. A husband who on some level she just cannot connect to no matter what. But I have to meet her half way, as does any veteran who's spent some time stressing in a war zone.

My wife told me she looks at old pictures of us and can now recognize the stress on my face. It's the same stress Cooper portrayed as he sat at home trying to pretend everything was fine. Normal life is one of the hardest things I've ever done.

In the end, I pity the movie character of Chris Kyle.

In this movie, the main character is someone who needs help and can never ask for it because of how the military treats their top killers. Audie Murphy, one of the most famous Soldiers in American history, suffered from PTSD. But when people constantly come up to you and call you a hero, how can you ever admit to yourself that you need that help?

In the last half hour of the movie, Kyle decides the best thing to do is work with other veterans, helping in their rehabilitation. He was murdered by a veteran he took to a gun range.

Shooting, if you can believe it, is very relaxing, especially for many veterans. I feel most at peace on a gun range surrounded by other Soldiers because we all have a shared experience. Shooting is about focus, breath control and blocking outside distractions to put a hole in a piece of paper. 

It is very difficult for many veterans to live a life of normality. Forget the politics, forget congressional hearing and the thousands upon thousands of articles about should we or shouldn't we have gone into Iraq. 

The movie American Sniper should have been about was the story of those of us who come back and remain outsiders for the rest of our lives. It should have thrown the uncomfortable reality in the face of everyone that there is a portion of the population who are broken.

But broken people are uncomfortable to talk about, so we got this movie instead.

Final Thoughts

I don't expect this post will make anyone suddenly flip their opinion of the movie or Kyle. Honestly, It's not a great movie, and the only thing I can give it credit for is treating PTSD as a very real problem for veterans coming home.

People who come out of this movie and talking about how they hate Muslims were probably asshole racists from the start and miss the point of the movie. I don't feel the politics of the current conflicts were the main point with the movie. It was meant to be a story about one guy and his struggles with a war he thinks he needs to fight and a family he needs to be there for which got lost because too many movie executives had their hands on it. Couple that with the questionable source material, and it just wasn't going to work.

I also don't really think this movie glorified war any more than something like Saving Private Ryan or any other war movie Hollywood has produced. It shows a naked brutality of what many veterans have to deal with. Where things aren't black and white and you're trying to do the best you can.

Overall, I think this movie was trying to be about internal struggle and PTSD, but had to throw in red, white and blue dickwaving and it suffered for it. Had they not fashioned this movie after a real person, they could have been more open with the ending and maybe given it the same treatment Jarhead had.

An ending where you go home at the end of the day to an uncaring world after doing a questionable job and have to make peace with yourself on what you did and why you did it.

That's a story many of us are still living today.

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