It was a bright, furnace-like afternoon in August 2009 when I shuffled out of a movie theater slightly stunned, even a bit numb. I’d just sat through Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, a fictionalized but riveting account of American bomb-disposal specialists operating in war-time Iraq. Although at that very moment I had two boys serving in the United States Marine Corps, the film managed to make me appreciate, in a renewed and jarring way, the vicious costs exacted upon our fighting forces by their exertions against Islamist terror.
My reaction was similar five-and-a-half years later — and seventy degrees colder — when I emerged from another cineplex, having just screened Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper. Those who plunk down ten bucks anticipating a popcorn shoot-’em-up chortling over the merits of “blowing away” the “jihadist scum” might find themselves surprised. Or disappointed. Because what’s stirringly portrayed instead by the eighty-three year old director and lead player Bradley Cooper is that violent death, though sometimes necessary, is always ugly and never to be indulged frivolously. Including when it’s really, unambiguously bad-bad-bad guys on the bloody receiving end of things.
American Sniper unsparingly recounts the experience of Navy SEAL sharpshooter Chris Kyle who served four tours of duty in Iraq. Like Cooper’s rendering in the movie, the real-life, lethally honed marksman nurtured an unapologetic but soberly business-like attitude toward his grim duties: the at-all-costs protection of his fellow warriors. And he didn’t flinch from carrying them out.
Kyle is officially credited with 160 kills, although unofficially the number is likely much higher. But nowhere evident in the Texas native’s public demeanor — actual or cinematic — was any kind of goofy, rah-rah fist-pumping over the taking of enemies’ lives.
American Sniper, in fact, counter-intuitively suggests Kyle felt it piercingly, often persistently, when his commission required that he eliminate one of the “savages” stalking his mates. What? This elite fighting man, scrupulously trained to surgically take out these cretins, executing his vital and noble task? Yup – evidently that didn’t insulate him from the personal and, in some measure, agonizing impact of ruthlessly stopping scores of beating hearts.
An episode fairly early in the movie demonstrates as much: following twin kills – a grenade-wielding young boy and, presumably, his mother who’d been charging an army unit — Kyle snaps with a scorching “Get your f***ing hands off me!” when his spotter attempts to hootingly back-slap him over his death-dealing accuracy. The SEAL returns to his quarters, solemn, shaken; never regretting his success — he’d saved those troops’ lives; yet newly touched by the harsh weightiness of his mission.
Curiously, that segment faintly echoes another Eastwood-helmed, mortality-contemplating vehicle, built around another category of gunman: 1992’s Best Picture choice, Unforgiven, and its protagonist, William Munny. “It’s a h*ll of a thing killin’ a man,” the decrepit outlaw ruminates aloud. “You take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.” Through that and other scenes in this American Western epic, the stone-killer, stoic gun-hand stereotype is expressly turned on its wide-brimmed, black-hatted head.
Sniper, more restrainedly, achieves something comparable, reflecting sanctity for life. It’s a theme worth revisiting regularly, particularly in our crime-ridden day, fixated on entertainment dominated by promiscuously exploding cars and gratuitously dropping bodies.
One prominent New Testament writer cautioned it’s a risky thing speaking ill of fellow human beings, since man has been created in God’s image (James 3:9). How much more consequential then — even when undeniably warranted — snatching away the life of those same men? Indeed, in an evil-haunted world that will end up an occasionally unavoidable recourse; but never a flippant, let alone jubilant, one.
Truth be told, the Bible overall — both Old and New Testaments — underscores this life-cherishing conviction. Human existence is to be regarded with such unbudging reverence that those guilty of what we’d classify as first degree murder must pay for their homicidal lawlessness with their own lives (Genesis 9).
Those responsible for inadvertently slaying another — what 21st century society would broadly identify as “manslaughter”? They didn’t get off scot-free either: Jewish law required the perpetrator of accidental killing to assume residency — post haste! — in one of Israel’s sundry “cities of refuge”. Otherwise? The liable party was open game for retaliation from the “avenger of blood” (Number 35).
Plainly, Abraham, Issac and Jacob’s God deemed human life so sacrosanct that even when it was cut short unintentionally He mandated the “manslayer” face hefty repercussions; in this instance, a dislocating change of address and all the personal upheaval that would entail.
Any human death – a matter of utmost gravity.
American Sniper endorses that principle, perhaps as a sub-text, but grippingly all the same. Chris Kyle nowhere unfurls an anguished soliloquy about the emotional havoc his duties wreaked inside him. The audience, instead, merely observes it sketched out in his tight-lipped but traumatized experience. Kyle performed conspicuously unpleasant but sadly indispensable work, standing sentry over comrades serving with him in that terror-infested war-zone; ultimately standing between America and those who’d destroy or enslave her. But heroic though his efforts were, he didn’t walk away from them unscathed. No decent person could.
Lt. Col. Oliver North (Ret.) has written,
I have always wondered about the kind of man who glorifies combat … The bravest military men I’ve known have all hated war, and it was a great general who uttered that famous remark — that war is hell. War changes you forever, and I can’t believe that anyone who’s ever been to one is eager to go again.
(Under Fire, p. 119).
“War changes” an individual – because, at bottom, war involves killing; exterminating those who’d otherwise exterminate him.
Whether on a menacing battlefield, at the behest of government enforcing the ultimate penalty against the murderously culpable, or in the home of a 2nd-amendment-treasuring American defending his family — the killing of another person is no laughing matter, never to be undertaken whimsically. Even if he is a miscreant. Even if she “deserves it”. Even if we have no other option.
Ironically, it’s the tale of a celebrated American sniper – swamping the box office for three weekends straight — which, most recently, has turned a beneficial spotlight on this life-affirming truth.