American Sniper’s crucial arc

I finally went to see American Sniper a couple of weeks ago. It was OK. Possibly it had been spoiled for me by the ceaseless debate about what it all meant. Whether it was pro or anti-war. Pro-America or anti. That sort of stuff.

In fact, as this rather excellent review in the New York Review of Books points out (subscription), it painted a more complex picture than its critics were prepared to allow. Sure, it didn’t give too much of an insight into Iraqi life. But it was a film about an American sniper. And in doing that it captured something crucially important about the development of that American sniper, and thus the war more broadly. Take this exchange when a psychiatrist asks Chris Kyle whether he had done things didn’t want to do….

“Oh, that’s not me, no. No, Sir, I’m not worried about that. I am willing to meet my Creator and answer for every shot I took.”

These lines are also simple and direct, but Cooper’s voice is weak, close to breaking, and the look on his face betrays bleak fear and doubt. With these two scenes and a few others the arc of the film is established, from the gung-ho enthusiasm of young men eager to go forth and kick ass for the greatest country in the world, to the half-strangled confusion of men who have suffered and killed for reasons that slip away like water in sand.

(One other brief point. I have started reading the NYRB recently. Many of its reviews are of books that are months – if not years – old. How much better than the instanalysis we are subjected to everywhere else.)


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