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Reacting to AMERICAN SNIPER


"War is All Hell." - General William Tecumseh Sherman
"God Bless Our Troops-- especially the snipers" - popular bumper sticker

I saw American Sniper the other day. After the movie an employee asked if I liked it. "Not sure," I responded. He said he had seen it ten times and cried at the end every time. I nearly cried too. I was exhausted and my heart was racing. On its own, yes the movie is very good. I just do not know how to assign a star rating to it or say "yes" or "no" when asked if I liked it. For the record, I have not read the book on which the movie is based, so I cannot say whether the film accurately follows it or not--  nor how Chris Kyle, a Navy Seal, is portrayed in the movie.

I'll admit that when I see movies involving the Iraq war of the last decade (I'll maintain The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty are both better than American Sniper) I find it difficult, no impossible, to lay aside my own feelings about the war and its ramifications for our society. So as every minute passed in the movie, I found my heart breaking a little more: for the men and women who serve in the military, constantly in danger and losing loved ones; for their families at home; for the evil in the world, and the all-too-often response: violence for violence.

And the reaction to this movie has been so polarized. There have been tweets and commentaries from the likes of Seth Rogen to Michael Moore to Sarah Palin to whoever has a microphone and camera facing them next. Who knows what was actually said or the context-- nevermind that stuff. A random tweet is all we need to capitalize and target a response to our audience. All of this attention has certainly impacted the box office receipts: more than a quarter billion dollars so far. Comparatively, The Hurt Locker made about $16 million, and Zero Dark Thirty $95 million. Why the overwhelming success for American Sniper?

Because it is based on a real person?
Because Chris Kyle was killed by a fellow veteran (his trial starts soon)?
Because of the rise of ISIS?

The movie does not struggle with the war itself: the decision to invade Iraq, the constant re-deployment of soldiers (Chris Kyle served four tours), the moral and financial cost, the numbers of those killed on both sides. Raising such concerns is often met with one or two responses: "That's ancient history; we need to move on"; or "That's unpatriotic and insulting to the military." No-- it's neither. These are serious questions and they deserve our attention. Recently I've watched a couple other movies that struggled with war and terrorism: Platoon and Munich. Both dealt seriously with the impact war and violence have on those who carry it out: Platoon with the Vietnam War and Munich with Israel's response to the murder of its Olympic athletes in 1972. Platoon follows a young Charlie Sheen, radically changed by the end of the movie. A handful of men hunt down the assassins of the athletes in Munich, only to find themselves questioning whether this is what citizens of Israel, who believe themselves chosen of God, ought to do.

As a person of faith, I find the questions of war to be unrelenting. In the movie, a young Chris Kyle brings a Bible home with him from church. The adult Chris Kyle brought it with him to Iraq. A buddy of his, who attended seminary before going to war, questions why Kyle has it, since he's never seen him read it, or even speak of God. This friend is later killed and a letter he wrote home questioning the war is read at his funeral. Kyle's wife wants to know what he thought of the letter-- she shares his concerns after seeing how the war has changed her husband-- he says his friend did not die because of the war, but because of the letter, written two weeks before he was killed. He had given up.

The most powerful scene American Sniper for me takes place at a landing field. Chris Kyle has just returned to Iraq for his second or third tour. He passes a group of Marines boarding a plane for home and sees his younger brother. His brother is weary, and basically says, "I hate this place. I'm going home." Bradley Cooper's reaction was absolutely perfect: he is incredulous that his kid brother is so anxious to go home and leave the war behind (we never see him again in the movie). Kyle, on the other hand, couldn't wait to get back in country. Over and over again.

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