I watched American Sniper last night with friends from Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, and experienced all the elements that are making this film such a powerful force nationwide: The theater was packed on a Thursday night. We heard what sounded like male sobbing somewhere behind us during the film. At its end, the audience stood and left the theater in reverent silence.
Why are so many people queuing up to see the new film from director Clint Eastwood and star Bradley Cooper and then being moved so deeply?
Probably because American Sniper finally tells a “war hero” story about Iraq: It presents “the Legend,” Navy SEAL Chris Kyle as a noble person doing good despite his brokenness. Films like Hurt Locker mainly just show the brokenness.
The film recounts the life of a man who loves his country trying to protect his brothers in arms, moving swiftly through his childhood lessons from his father to his rowdy young adulthood on the rodeo circuit to his own fatherhood and military service. The story is very well told, though ultimately probably too formulaic to be the “masterpiece” some have been calling it.
Anyone watching American Sniper brings a lot into the theater with him: Personal connections with those who fought in and perhaps never returned from Iraq, political beliefs about the war, and the very real fear of the dangerous people in Iraq who still have America in their sites.
Catholics watching American Sniper bring the Church’s moral perspective with them too.
Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and every bishop in the world opposed the Iraq war (though the war in Afghanistan after 9/11 was green-lighted by the Vatican). Before you can justly start a war, says the Catechism, “the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain.” Church leaders saw no such threat against the United States in Iraq.
The filmmaker, and its lead character, clearly disagree. The explicit motivation of the main character is to protect not just his fellow fighters but his family and his country.
For the soldier fighting in a war, the moral calculus is different. Eastwood does a good job of raising the moral dilemmas faced by snipers, and American fighters in Iraq in general.
The film becomes a kind of object lesson in wartime morality.
“Non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners must be respected and treated humanely,” says the Catechism. The movie shows the agonizing choices Chris Kyle faces, having to make split-second decisions about who is a combatant and who is a civilian. His first target as a sniper is a powerful illustration of just how difficult and important those decisions can be.
The movie helps remind us that America’s military is very serious and careful about avoiding civilian casualties — something that it has not gotten enough credit for.
“Those who are sworn to serve their country in the armed forces are servants of the security and freedom of nations,” says the Catechism. “If they carry out their duty honorably, they truly contribute to the common good of the nation and the maintenance of peace.” The film certainly presents Chris Kyle as this kind of servant of security, especially in the heroic procession that ends it.
Some have argued that the real Kyle was not the paragon of wartime morality that his movie alter ego is. I am not so sure.
On the one hand, Religion News Services shared quotes from Kyle’s book about his military experiences that don’t sound like the careful, reflective Kyle in the movie. In the book, he tells an Army colonel: “I don’t shoot people with Korans. I’d like to, but I don’t.” In another place, “I hated the damn savages I’d been fighting,” Kyle wrote. “I never once fought for the Iraqis. I could give a flying —- about them.”
But read more of the real Kyle’s self-assessment and he ultimately does sound like the Cooper version.
“If I had to order my priorities, they would be God, Country, Family,” Kyle wrote. “There might be some debate on where those last two fall — these days I’ve come around to believe that Family may, under some circumstances, outrank Country. But it’s a close race.” The film puts that “close race”into a conversation between husband and wife.
The film also clearly got Kyle’s relationship with Scripture right. “I’d carried a Bible with me,” he wrote. “I hadn’t read it all that much, but it had always been with me.”
The movie also basically quotes his thoughts on his ultimate salvation: “But in that backroom or whatever it is when God confronts me with my sins, I do not believe any of the kills I had during the war will be among them.”
Ultimately, American Sniper is thought-provoking without being preachy in just the way a movie about our invasion of Iraq ought to be. It is a real story about a real character whose faults lived side-by-side with the qualities in him that saved lives and brought people out in droves to honor his life.
Rated R for violence, profanity and sexual references. While ending such scenes mercifully early, Eastwood dwells on the sexual in Kyle’s relationship with his wife before marriage, during marriage and even on the phone. Kids-In-Mind.com gives it a 3 for sexuality, 8 for violence and 10 for profanity in its scale of 10.
See also: The Just War vs. ISIS, and The Way You End a War Can Be Unjust, Too.