At several levels, this is a very hard movie to watch.
The hardest part to take in is the war violence. We’re going house-to-house, flushing out insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the places where there was known enemy activity, the Americans would arrive in armored vehicles and disperse into platoons: The Marines take the house-to-house and Navy Seal snipers deploy on the rooftops, protecting them from what the Marines couldn’t see coming around them or behind them. It was an effective strategy, but everyone had to be fearless: both the Marines crashing the doors, not knowing what was behind them, and the snipers, who couldn’t hesitate when they spotted a potential target. And therein lies the most difficult part of watching this film: The sniper has to decide whether to target women and children. Of course, it was easier if he could see people with their suicide bombs or with their anti-tank guns. Then he was only protecting his buddies and watching their backs. In the end, that became the primary motivation for going back out there in harm’s way: It was about the comrades-in-arms. And the folks back home could never quite get that.
Oh, going back home. That’s the other hard part. The soldiers who actually adapted to the horrifying battlefield conditions then often had difficulty adjusting to the tranquil, boring, tepid, inane peace time. Where you watched your kids watch cartoons and tried to care more when their mom told you about what they didn’t like in their lunch boxes. Where you jumped out of your skin at the mechanic’s shop just hearing an electric lug wrench. Where the firefight scenes kept replaying in your head like you were watching them on the television screen, until you suddenly caught yourself actually watching a blank screen. Yeah, they have names for the PTSD, but putting a label on it doesn’t really speak to the depths of its core-shaking potential. And that’s not even counting the poor souls who came back blind or maimed or just emotionally unable to readjust to “normal” civilian life.
Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) served four tours. Sure, he grew up hunting with his dad, but lots of kids raised in the country did that. Not all of them had the natural calm that Chris Kyle did when he was holding a rifle. He became known over there as “The Legend,” a moniker he wore unhappily because he knew it put a bounty on his head. But he was going after the enemy’s best sniper and it became more than a competition with counting scalps – it was their own private war, the one Chris Kyle couldn’t let go of, even on furlough. And his wife knew it. Taya (Sienna Miller) loved her husband, and kept reminding him that she needed him and her children needed him, much more than they did in that faraway war zone. Of course, that dynamic brings up the whole political question of American involvement in the Middle East. And the shifting attitudes of a fickle American public toward the politics of “boots on the ground,” no matter the rationale. Sure, we treat our returning soldiers now better than we did in the Vietnam era. But it’s a lot easier fighting for a cause that everybody on the home front is behind. (See “Fury,” the current film portraying an American tank crew in World War II, or “Unbroken,” portraying a B-24 crew.) Bradley Cooper is very convincing in this role, and so is Sienna Miller as his not-suffering-in-silence wife. But the most real kudos go out to director Clint Eastwood, who grips us by the jangled nerves, and never lets go.
No, it’s not easy to watch. Not while Kyle is on tour, and not when he’s home, and especially not when he meets his ironic end, at the hands of a PTSD vet on the rifle range. Does this film glorify war? No. But it does take us there, to the 21st century version of counter-insurgency combat. It’s real. And it’s here. And watching it makes it seem like “a long time ago and in a galaxy very far away” when we all innocently sang around the campfire “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More.”
RONALD P. SALFEN is the parish associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.